As the newest Democratic candidate for president, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg brings his lengthy experience overseeing Big Apple schools to the race—and his record attracts big fans well as harsh critics.
A billionaire businessman who founded a financial data-services firm that later grew to include a news service, Bloomberg served as Gotham’s mayor from 2002 to 2013. His ambitions for the city’s public schools were well-timed: Soon after Bloomberg took office in 2002, Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, signed a law transferring control of the city’s schools to the mayor. Mayoral control was briefly suspended when the state legislature let it lapse for about a month during the summer of 2009.
In that capacity, Bloomberg likely acquired some of the most hands-on experience dealing with schools of any of the 2020 candidates. His supporters say his decisions about accountability and standards, along with expanded school choice and changes to labor policies, had clear benefits for the city’s students. Yet critics take aim at those same decisions. They say his centralized decisionmaking process sometimes shut out important parties, and that Bloomberg was not transparent.
During his time in office, Bloomberg’s package of reforms was branded Children First. The city’s schools adopted new reading and math curriculum, revamped its high school admissions system to go to a city-wide process, and adopted an A-F system to grade schools. He also pushed for low-performing teachers to be laid off.
The growth of charter schools was a big part of his time as mayor. A Brookings Institution paper from 2013 found that the number of charter schools grew from just 22 in 2003 to 159 in the 2012-13 school year. He was an ally of Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of Success Academy, the high-profile charter school network, although Moskowitz said the two never “hit it off personally.”
Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor will always be closely identified with Joel Klein, who serves as the city schools chancellor for eight years.
On his watch, New York City schools won the Broad Prize for success in urban education, and Klein’s backers said Klein was determined to focus on student achievement and success, even if it meant alienating traditional power players in Big Apple schools.
Yet the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers’ union, fought with Klein over issues like the release of value-added score results for thousands of city teachers. Indeed, the union’s distrust of Klein was such that in 2015, the American Federation of Teachers made a “panicked” call to then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign to check out a rumor that Klein was advising the former U.S. senator and secretary of state. (It turned out he was not.)
Go here for several articles concerning Klein’s leadership of Big Apple schools. Bloomberg’s pick to succeed Klein, Cathie Black, a magazine executive, lasted just three months on the job and was subject to withering criticism. Black was replaced by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott.
Political Donor and Gun Control
Bloomberg’s decisions about Gotham schools were a big part of the race to succeed him as mayor. In 2013, a spokesman for Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, attacked Bloomberg’s record, saying that he “used mayoral control to shove his policies into schools and communities.”
Since leaving the mayor’s office, Bloomberg has also made his mark as a political donor, contributing to local school board races in addition to state legislative and other elections. He’s part of a larger trend of wealthy individuals and outside groups getting more involved in these elections that don’t involve national offices.
Last year, Bloomberg pledged $375 million over the next five years to initiatives focusing on making students ready for college and the workforce. In the same vein, three years ago Bloomberg Philanthropies launched the American Talent Initiative, in which a coalition of elite colleges and universities said they’d work to enroll more high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds.
And Bloomberg has been particularly notable for his advocacy for gun control. He bankrolled the creation of Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for stricter gun laws among other policies. Everytown for Gun Safety has warned against arming teachers to prevent school shootings.
Photo: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at a news conference at a gun control advocacy event in Las Vegas in February 2019. Bloomberg has opened door to a potential presidential run, saying the Democratic field ‘not well positioned’ to defeat Trump. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)