Weeks before he left office in 2013, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood before reporters and touted a record-high city graduation rate of 66 percent — a full six months before the state planned to release the statistics.
That’s how eager Bloomberg was to secure his legacy as an education reformer who battled mightily to enact his specific vision for a better school system. Pitting himself against those who argued that student poverty would impede efforts to improve education, Bloomberg closed low-performing schools, opened many small ones in their places, championed charter schools, and gave principals more autonomy in exchange for strict accountability.
“What is clear is that for the 12 years we’ve been doing this, the results are – by any national standards – outstanding,” Bloomberg said at the time. “We really have become the poster child.”
Bloomberg has now launched a bid for president, after initially saying in March that he wouldn’t run. But six years after he left office, many of the education programs that he introduced are gone after his successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, dismantled them. (De Blasio briefly campaigned for president himself, earlier in 2019.)
At the same time, while some of the ideas Bloomberg advanced have become a new status quo, many others have fallen out of favor among Democrats. That means his education agenda could be a liability on the campaign trail — putting him in a position like that of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who championed similar policies as mayor of Newark.
Here’s a look at Bloomberg’s education legacy in New York City.
Bloomberg wanted control of the schools, and he got it.
New York City’s school system had long been considered ungovernable when Bloomberg took office in 2002. Bloomberg, and plenty of others, argued the city’s community school boards were ruled by political patronage that rendered them ineffective and diffused accountability. Bloomberg campaigned on a new way of doing business: consolidating unprecedented power over schools in the mayor’s office.
Soon after his first election, Bloomberg got his wish when the state legislature approved a sweeping system of mayoral control. The change made the system less democratic but also, Bloomberg argued, less corrupt and easier to steer. Elected community boards, put in place during the civil rights era, were stripped of most of their power. The citywide school board was relegated to a largely ceremonial role, with a majority of members appointed — and fired — at the will of the mayor.
Then he moved decisively to advance his ideas, many drawn from the business world.
Bloomberg believed that the same things that benefited him in business would yield better schools: information and competition.
He created new schools and also allowed privately run charter schools to use the city’s school buildings, under the principle that successful schools would draw families. He also transformed the high school admissions process so that students could apply to schools citywide, with an algorithm matching students and schools. He then moved to close schools that did not post strong results or that did not draw interest from families. Ultimately, Bloomberg phased out about 150 schools in a move that elicited resistance from communities and even lawsuits.
Under his direction, the city also began generating reams of new data about schools and what happened inside of them — surveys of parent and teacher satisfaction, reports showing how students’ scores improved over time, evaluations of teachers based on their students’ test scores.
To make all of this happen, Bloomberg recruited people from outside of the public service sector — starting with his flagship chancellor, Joel Klein, an attorney who had been working for an international media company. Their ambitious education agenda made working in the city education department feel like a glamorous place for talented young professionals to kick off their careers. (Not all of Bloomberg’s hires worked out well: Infamously, the former publisher Cathie Black stepped down as chancellor after only 95 tumultuous days on the job.)
He never shied away from a fight.
Bloomberg wielded his new power without reservation, and he made many enemies along the way. Frequently, he seemed to relish conflict.
In an early move that would be described as the “Monday night massacre,” Bloomberg booted three of his appointees to the city school board when they went against his controversial move to end “social promotion” of students from one grade to the next.
Over time, his embrace of charters prompted public battles over space and resources for traditional schools. His efforts to close low-performing schools also drew public outcry — and faced a lawsuit that temporarily saved more than a dozen of them. New York City became ground zero for a broader polarization around education politics that deepened throughout the first decade of Bloomberg’s leadership.
He fought the union constantly, but raised teacher pay substantially.
No one drew Bloomberg’s ire more than the United Federation of Teachers. At first, he worked collaboratively with the union, arriving at a contract agreement well ahead of schedule that boosted base pay by 43 percent. The longest-serving teachers could now earn more than $100,000.
But that was the last contract they agreed to. Moving forward, virtually every piece of Bloomberg’s agenda stoked outrage from the teachers union, which he once likened to the National Rifle Association.
Despite — or maybe because of — all the battles, schools got better.
Graduation rates climbed by more than 40 percent to historic highs, and dropout rates cratered. Later research would peg some of the increases to Bloomberg’s policy of closing large high schools and opening smaller ones in their place. The charter schools that opened in New York City drove larger learning gains than their district-run counterparts. And in a city that was growing safer and wealthier, families that might have chosen to leave or opt for private schools chose public education instead.
There were also less encouraging trends. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, some schools wound up with high concentrations of needy students, deepening segregation. The creation of new gifted programs and selective high schools also introduced inequities. And Bloomberg’s social promotion ban got rolled back after it became clear that being held back repeatedly was harming some students.
In the end, Bloomberg left office feeling like his schools legacy was unfinished. Creating the kind of education students need, he said in a speech just before the election to replace him, would require a broader political effort — one that could be contributed to equally by public servants and business leaders.
“We’ve seen here in New York, and in cities around the country, that progress is possible – real, substantial, dramatic progress,” Bloomberg said. “But it’s going to take strong organized political leadership, and it’s going to take innovative ideas from civic leaders in the public and private sectors because we’re all in this together.”