A Tarnished MedalMayor Bloomberg’s real stance on public education
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal by the City University of New York at the opening ceremony for the New Community College at CUNY on August 20th. The medal is an award of incredible prominence given to individuals who have made monumental contributions in pursuit of a more just, humane society. Acknowledged for his financial support to the College, Mayor Bloomberg now finds himself in the company of leaders who have worked endlessly for the public good.
This prestigious recognition for Bloomberg’s contributions towards education merits a serious review of his actions in that realm. During the award ceremony, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein addressed the mayor and his “singular efforts to ensure an accessible, high-quality education to all New Yorkers.” While this language may have fit the jovial and congratulatory nature of the ceremony, it is certainly not an accurate description of Mayor Bloomberg’s record. When thoroughly reviewed, his policies and practices cast a dark tarnish upon his newly acquired medal.
In his 2002 State of the City address, Bloomberg remarked, “To achieve systematic change in our schools, we must have mayoral accountability.” Five months later, the New York State Legislature passed a law stipulating just that, transferring control of New York City schools away from the State Board of Education. Here, Mayor. Bloomberg’s ambition had been realized: the Board of Education had been gutted. What was once a comprehensive organization of twenty- eight districts with a democratically elected leadership would soon become a unilateral power trip. Bloomberg assumed near-complete control over the largest school system in the country, made up of more than 1,700 schools and serving more than one million children.
Mayoral control places enormous power in the hands of a few politicians, many of whom are unqualified, according to former city comptroller and Board of Education President William C. Thompson. “With its top-down approach, the Bloomberg administration has sought to avoid
public debate and scrutiny,” he said. As Bloomberg solidified his singular grip on the city’s schools, he silenced the voices of all concerned parties—teachers, parents, and students alike. Even Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer said Bloomberg had taken “a lone ranger approach to education.”
Since his inauguration in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg has used this political power to close or phase out 140 public schools. New schools are often immediately opened in their place, under the nonsensical belief that simple changes in administration and staff will transform schools plagued by larger, external factors. Education historian and policy analyst Diane Ravitch notes this in her searing review of the film Waiting For Superman. The 2010 blockbuster documentary demonized public schools, and made the repetitive, mono-causal claim that if bad teachers and their unions could be scrapped, then all the complex, intricate problems of American education would be solved. “[Teachers’] effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers,” says Ravitch.
Even the schools Bloomberg has opened himself have failed to produce results. According to a July 2012 study by New York Daily News, “just 38% of students at elementary and middle schools created by the Bloomberg administration passed the reading exams, compared with 47% of students citywide.” Additionally, of the “state reading test scores for 154 public elementary and middle schools that have opened since the Mayor took office, nearly 60% had passing rates that were lower than older schools.”
When Bloomberg closes a school, he often reopens a charter school in its place. Though charter schools are publicly funded, they are privately managed. They operate independently from the state on a government contract or “charter.” The widespread shift from public to charter schools represents the privatization of education. Suddenly, the notion of an educational-industrial complex doesn’t seem so outlandish.
Privatizing public education is itself a travesty, though the situation is made more absurd by the fact that charter schools have not proven superior in educating the public. The most comprehensive study of charter schools to date, published in 2009 by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, reveals that “Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options” and that “over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.” A mere “17 percent provide superior education opportunities for their students.”
Why then, does the Mayor continue to advocate for an educational structure that fails its students? According to Clarence Taylor, professor of History at Baruch College, it stems from Bloomberg’s admiration for the business model of education. It is within the charter school that this model can be fully realized. Ideally, Taylor explains, “The principal acts as the CEO, shaping the policies
and practices of the school with little input from parents, teachers, or unions.” It is also important to note that many charter schools are for-profit entities, a nauseating perversion of public education. Bloomberg’s advocacy for this model is not surprising considering his lengthy and lucrative career in the private sector. Let us not forget that Bloomberg is the second- wealthiest man in New York City and the wealthiest politician in the country, according to International Business Times.
During his three terms as mayor, Michael Bloomberg has eviscerated much of the democratic structure that enables public schools to effectively serve the public good. Though the City University of New York has been largely insulated from the mayor’s disastrous policies in the direct sense, it will reap the repercussions in time. It will receive students who were underserved in their schools, it will matriculate young adults who were educated in ineffective, privatized institutions, and it will be forced to reconsider the Medal it once gave—a medal that will, with time, come to represent nothing more than dishonor.