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Michael Bloomberg’s Disastrous Public Education Legacy

Issue Bloomberg Files

Leonie Haimson Feb 25

As of mid-February, Michael Bloomberg has spent over $400 million on his presidential campaign, including blanketing the air waves with ads and is on track to spend more than a billion dollars. As a result, he has risen sharply in the polls, and in turn, begun to receive critical attention regarding his record on certain issues, such as racial profiling and his stop-and-frisk policies.

When I heard that he was running for president, it felt like the return of a bad dream.

However, Bloomberg’s record on education has been glossed over. When it is mentioned at all, he has been vaguely praised, as in a recent Thomas Friedman column, for championing  “virtually every progressive cause” including “education reform for predominantly minority schools.”

But the reality is that Bloomberg’s education record is far from progressive. In fact, when I heard that he was running for president, it felt like the return of a bad dream that for many of us had begun to fade away long years ago.

Aggressive Free-Market Ideology

For voters who do not live in New York City or never sent their children to public school here,  you might not be aware that Bloomberg embodied an aggressive free-market ideology with policies that were contrary to research and hugely disruptive — in the worst sense of the word. Far from the benevolent, pragmatic centrist his campaign likes to portray,  Bloomberg and his chancellors reigned over NYC public schools for 12 years with an iron fist, autocratically imposing destructive reforms with little concern for how they upended the lives of communities, students and teachers.

In many respects, his policies contradicted his campaign promises. When he first ran for Mayor in 2002, he didn’t mention the wrecking-ball he later deployed on the school system, but instead pledged to implement a proven reform: to lower class sizes in all schools to 20 students or less in grades K-3. Class-size reduction has been shown to benefit all kids but especially students of color, who make up the majority of kids in New York City schools.

Instead of following through on this promise, subsequent audits from the state and city comptrollers showed, his administration misused hundreds of millions of state dollars meant for class-size reduction. As a result, class sizes stagnated and then rose sharply in his second term.  

 In 2011, at a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bloomberg announced that if he had his way, he would double class sizes by firing half the teachers. He would “weed out all the bad ones” and pay the rest more. It would be “good deal for the students,” he insisted. What he didn’t mention, of course, is that his own daughters attended a private school where class sizes averaged 14-18 student per class, while over 300,000 NYC public school students were enrolled in classes of 30 or more. By 2013, his last year in office, class sizes in the early grades in public schools had risen to the highest levels in 15 years

Testing Mania

Instead of focusing his efforts on improving learning conditions in the schools, Bloomberg and his hand-picked chancellors ratcheted up pressure on students, teachers and schools by basing their fates on standardized tests. 

One of the first indications of Bloomberg’s ruthlessness occurred in 2004, when he precipitously fired two of his own appointees to the mayoral-controlled school board, called the Panel on Educational Policy, after they expressed opposition to his plan to hold back third-graders on the basis of their test scores alone. This event was soon known as the Monday night massacre.

Grade retention based on test scores has no backing in research, which instead shows that holding back kids leads to lower achievement and higher drop-out rates, as he was warned in a letter — signed by 107 educators, advocates and academics, including four past presidents of the American Education Research Association, the chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Appropriate Use of Educational Testing, and several members of the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council. 

Yet Bloomberg went on to expand this regressive policy to students in all grades through 8. He was also careful from then on to appoint individuals whose jobs were reliant on city funding or donations from his personal fortune to the school board.

By 2012, his administration finally ended the grade retention policy when, just as experts had predicted, the city’s Department of Education (DOE) found that it had indeed led to higher drop-out rates. Their own analysis revealed that 46 percent of children who were held back more than once had left high school before graduating, compared to 29 percent who were held back once and 11 percent who were not held back at all.

In 2007, Bloomberg also implemented merit pay for teachers based on student test score data. After the city spent $52 million on the merit pay scheme, it was abandoned four years later, when it was found to be ineffective in raising achievement, according to several independent studies.

Erratic School Ratings

Also in 2007, his administration instituted a system in which all schools were given grades of A to F, based primarily on test score gains. The grading system was so erratic that several schools that received a failing grade one year received stellar grades the following year. Eighty-five percent of each school’s grade depended on one year’s test scores alone. According to experts, this was a highly unreliable indicator of performance, since 34 percent to 80 percent of annual fluctuations in a typical school’s scores are random or due to one-time factors, unrelated to the amount of actual learning taking place.

Bloomberg’s over-emphasis on high-stakes testing exacerbated stratification and segregation across the school system.

His administration also imposed teacher ratings based on “value-added” test score gains. These were called Teacher Data Reports. Deputy Chancellor Chris Cerf made a deal in 2008 with then-United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president Randi Weingarten to keep these experimental ratings private. The DOE broke this agreement in 2010 when Chancellor Joel Klein urged reporters to file Freedom of Information requests for the data reports, which he promptly fulfilled. The release of these evaluations led to them being published in all the major NYC dailies, along with teachers’ names.

At the time, some reporters noted the research consensus that the value-added method of evaluating teachers unreliable, and that in many cases, the underlying data itself was faulty, based on test scores of students who had never been in these teachers’ classes. In one instance, a teacher was rated via student test scores when she was out on maternity leave. In another, several teachers were rated on math scores even though they had never taught that subject.

Chancellor Klein also promised teachers that the reports would be used only diagnostically, and not for the purpose of formal job evaluations. Subsequently, Bloomberg reneged on this promise, demanding that principals rely on these ratings when deciding which teachers would be granted tenure. Michael Winerip of the New York Times wrote a poignant column about one beloved teacher who lost her chance at tenure merely because her class of gifted students had scored so highly the year before that there was essentially no way they could show gains the year after.

The administration asserted that a study supported their use of value-added teacher evaluations. Yet when I finally received a response to my Freedom of Information request asking for evidence of this claim, 15 months after I had submitted it, this too turned out to be false. Instead, the DOE”s hand-picked committee of academic experts had refused to endorse the evaluations for teacher “accountability, promotion or tenure.” 

“Test scores capture only one dimension of teacher effectiveness,” the committee warned, and are “not intended as a summary measure of teacher performance.” 

Intensified School Segregation

Bloomberg’s over-emphasis on high-stakes testing exacerbated stratification and segregation across the school system. Studies show that while he was mayor, he closed many zoned, comprehensive high schools and increased the number of selective or “screened” schools. The percentage of high schools designed to admit a balanced number of high, low and average-achieving students dropped from 55.4 percent to only 27.7 percent by 2009.

He also closed or phased out more than 100 schools that enrolled a disproportionate share of black and low-income students, causing displacement and uncertainty for tens of thousands of students, as well as the loss of permanent positions for many of their teachers. At the same time, hundreds of small schools opened, many of them funded by the Gates Foundation. They refused to enroll any students with special needs or English language learners. Their openly exclusionary admission policies prompted parents to file a complaint  with the Office of Civil Rights of the US Department of Education in 2006.  

Though this official exclusion policy eventually ceased, many of the new small schools adopted either “screened admissions,” which are dependent on student grades and test scores, or required students’ families to attend information sessions as part of the application process.  The demand that parents attend these sessions at schools sometimes miles away from where they lived or worked was a serious barrier for many of those with little available time or disposable income.

As more and more small schools opened, many of the larger, unselective high schools that remained in place were further destabilized, as they became even more overcrowded with the high-needs students, many of them recent immigrants still learning English, whom the new schools failed to enroll.

Under Bloomberg, the number of specialized science high schools that base admissions solely on one high-stakes test — an exam that has never been evaluated for racial or gender bias — grew from three to eight schools. At Stuyvesant, the city’s most selective high school, the number of black students admitted fell precipitously from 109 in the year 2000  to only seven in 2010, out of a yearly class of approximately 1,000 students.

Charter School Champion

But perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Bloomberg years is how he encouraged the growth of privately-run charter schools by spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to build them separate facilities or even more frequently, give them space inside public school buildings for free. This too-often forced public schools, which already inhabited those buildings, to lose their libraries, art or music rooms and sufficient access to their dining halls and gyms.

As was frequently noted, NYC charter schools tend to enroll far fewer of the neediest students, including English language learners, students with severe disabilities and homeless kids. Many had “no excuses” disciplinary policies, leading to high rates of suspension and teacher attrition.

Bloomberg compared the teachers union to the NRA, for opposing his teacher evaluation system.

Bloomberg, together with charter school supporters on Wall Street, successfully lobbied to have the state’s charter cap raised in 2007 and again in 2010. This allowed the number of charter schools in NYC to increase sharply during his administration from 19 to 183, eventually drawing more than a billion dollars out of the DOE budget and shrinking the amount of space available to the public schools.

Despite all Bloomberg’s overemphasis on standardized testing, his policies did not lead to any narrowing of the achievement gap between ethnic and racial groups, or demonstrably higher scores overall, despite frequent claims otherwise by him and his supporters.

Though state test scores initially rose during his administration, this increase was eventually proven to be illusory, based on the exams and their scoring becoming easier, leading to rampant test score inflation. When the test score bubble burst in 2010, test scores fell sharply. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most reliable, low-stakes exams administered by the federal government every two years, student progress between 2003 and 2013 lagged behind that of every other large city except Cleveland, when average test score gains were disaggregated by their students’ ethnic, racial and economic status.

Consultant Gravy Train

The Bloomberg years also featured reckless overspending on a variety of overpriced vendors, products and consultants. An audit from the state comptroller found that the DOE awarded 3,183 contracts totaling $6.2 billion between July 2005 and June 2008. Of that spending, $342.5 million went toward no-bid contracts that could have been competitive. In many cases, DOE officials “failed to properly document” the reason why these contracts were awarded, the comptroller found.

In one egregious example, the Panel for Educational Policy rubberstamped a $54 million contract extension with the consulting group Future Technology Associates (FTA), even after Juan Gonzalez at the Daily News published a series of articles revealing the company had no offices, no other apparent customers and was using foreign workers brought in on temporary visas who were being paid one fourth of what DOE was being charged. Two years later, the Special Investigator of Schools released a report revealing fraud and corruption involved in this spending, including the fact that the city’s contract with the company had been awarded as an “inside job,” arranged by a high-level DOE official who was romantically involved with FTA’s co-owner.

But the greatest waste occurred in the acquisition of two expensive student data systems. The record management system called “ARIS” launched in 2007, cost city taxpayers nearly $100 million dollars and was ditched in 2014, after it was found to be essentially useless. The special education data system SESIS cost another $130 million, and was so dysfunctional that it could not be relied upon to provide accurate information as to which students were receiving their services. It was also so riddled with technical glitches that it took hours for teachers to input the data, so much so that that the city was forced to spend $75.5 million to pay teachers for overtime. A year ago, the DOE announced they would replace SESIS, with another system as yet unknown and a cost as yet unknown.

Leading Without Listening

One of the worst aspects of Bloomberg’s leadership was his arrogant dismissal of parents, teachers and students when they objected to his policies, like the closing of schools or forced co-locations with charters. More than once, he explained away their opposition with supreme condescension. 

There is little evidence that Bloomberg has changed his views on education, especially regarding charter schools.

In 2007, he criticized the efforts of the UFT, the teacher’s union, to block some of his reforms by comparing them to the National Rifle Association. “You always do have the problem of a very small group of people who are single-issue focused having a disproportionate percentage of power,” he said. “That’s exactly the NRA… That’s what we’ve got to make sure doesn’t happen here… You’re either with our children or against our children.”

In 2013, Bloomberg again compared the teachers union to the NRA, for opposing his teacher evaluation system. “It’s typical of Congress, it’s typical of unions, it’s typical of companies, I guess, where a small group is really carrying the ball and the others aren’t necessarily in agreement,” he said. “The NRA is another place where the membership, if you do the polling, doesn’t agree with the leadership.”  

At the time, these comments were seen as particularly tone-deaf, coming only a few weeks after the horrific school shooting at Newtown, Connecticut, where two teachers were among the many victims.

Bloomberg’s attitude towards parents was even more offensive. In 2011, when asked why parents were fighting his efforts to close their children’s schools, Bloomberg responded that some parents “never had a formal education and they don’t understand the value of education.”

The next year, he expressed similar condescension, while discussing the high rates of absence at some schools. “We have a lot of kids who unfortunately don’t have parents at home when they leave in the morning or get home in the afternoon and it’s harder to supervise kids,” he said. “And then maybe, you know, some people don’t care. Some people don’t understand the value of education.”

“Here the mayor goes again, blaming parents,” As parent activist Zakiyah Ansari responded. “It’s always everyone’s fault but his. He should be talking about ensuring that there are more guidance counselors, social workers and smaller classrooms, so schools can keep better track of students and the reasons why they aren’t going, instead of blaming parents and families that have challenges he clearly doesn’t understand.”

Nearly every parent cares desperately and yearns for their children to receive a good education. 

The Cathy Black Fiasco

And most New York City parents esteem educators with experience and credentials far more than Bloomberg — who named three non-educators to be chancellor of the public schools — ever did.

Perhaps the worst Bloomberg appointee was Cathy Black, a magazine publisher, who succeed Joel Klein in 2011 though she had no experience in either government or education, and had sent her own children to private schools. Parents were outraged that she met none of the legal requirements for the job. As the New York Times pointed out, this anger was especially fierce in communities of color:

“There was quite a reaction in the district,” said Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, who represents the Bronx. “Parents are upset, PTA leaders, they were shocked that somebody without experience in education could be appointed.”

Bloomberg’s response to parent opposition:  “It just goes to show they have no understanding whatsoever of what the job is. This is a management job.”

 The mayor’s political aides, including the same bunch who are now working on his presidential campaign, worked hard to wrangle endorsements of Black’s appointment from former New York mayors, including Rudolph Giuliani (currently Donald Trump’s personal lawyer), business leaders and celebrities like Gloria Steinem and Oprah. Though the administration didn’t ask him, even Trump approved.

“There’s a theory that I happen to believe in that if you’re successful in one thing, you’ll be successful in another,” Trump said. “I’m a big believer in education. I went to Wharton’s School of Finance. I think Cathie will do a great job.”

Yet none of that made much difference when Cathie Black was fired after only 95 days, as not even Bloomberg could ignore the furor her appointment and her evident clumsiness on the job caused. 

“Mayoral control of the schools,” education expert Diane Ravitch later wrote about the Cathie Black fiasco, “has brought out some of the mayor’s worst traits, and he tends to act as though the schools belong to him as an extension of his personal household and that he rules as lord of the manor, a lord whose decisions are never to be questioned.”

Bloomberg hung on for 12 long years as mayor, using his political influence and personal fortune to persuade the City Council to overturn term limits and gain reelection twice.

An Inflexible Ideologue

There is little evidence that Bloomberg has changed his views on education, especially regarding charter schools. In 2014, his personal political action committee spent at least $2.3 million on ads to reelect the Republican Governor of Michigan Rick Snyder, praising him, among other things, for his support of charters. He has spent more than $15 million on pro-charter candidates and organizations in Louisiana, more than $4 million in California and, in Massachusetts, $490,000 in support of a failed 2016 charter school increase attempt.

Though he hasn’t yet released his education platform, campaign officials recently reconfirmed that it will include a push for privatization.

“Mike’s education plan will absolutely promote charter schools,” campaign spokesman Stu Loeser told the New York Post. “The record number of charter schools opened under Mayor Bloomberg is clear. That isn’t changing.” 

Let’s hope that Bloomberg doesn’t succeed at using his billions to buy his way to the Democratic nomination. The last thing the nation’s public schools need is to exchange one imperious billionaire with another.

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