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There are so many reasons Mike Bloomberg should not win the Democratic presidential primary. Using his billions to buy votes, his racist rationale for the 2008 housing crisis, his similarly racist and stubborn commitment to stop and frisk policing, and his misogynistic treatment of women are just a few of his recently publicized disqualifications.
During the South Carolina Democratic Debate Bloomberg claimed that New York City’s teachers would vouch for his record of respecting workers and women. I laughed out loud when I heard this comment. As someone who started teaching under Mayor Bloomberg, I want to make sure his utter disrespect for public education does not go unnoticed. It is rooted in a similar disdain for poor people and people of color, and the consequences are still being felt today.
So - Bloomberg was in an all out war with the teachers union in NYC for years. If you call them as Bloomberg suggested you will get quite an earful.
— Eliza Shapiro (@elizashapiro) February 26, 2020
New York City’s public schools have been under mayoral control since 2002, shortly after Bloomberg took office. That means Bloomberg was essentially my boss from 2007 (my first year in the classroom) until 2014 when Bill de Blasio took over. At the time that I started teaching, I didn’t fully realize how damaging Bloomberg’s approach was. I’d like to think I didn’t know any better. Having taught in New York City’s schools for over a decade now, I have come to see it for the neoliberal attack on public schools and unionized labor that it was.
Privatization of Public Schools
As the head of New York City schools, Bloomberg pushed an agenda that is practically indistinct from the Trump and Devos policy of privatization and “school choice.” Bloomberg had zero respect for educators and the expertise earned through time in the classroom. He believed in running schools like businesses which meant a zealous commitment to increasing competition and closing schools deemed failing. Under Bloomberg, the number of charter schools grew from 17 to 183. At the same time, he closed 157 schools.
Under Bloomberg, Harlem, the community where I currently live and teach, was arguably ground zero for this rapid privatization of public schools. Many local and national charter networks such as KIPP, Success Academy, and Harlem Children’s Zone made their mark on Harlem during Bloomberg’s tenure. Today, the district school’s enrollment has been hollowed out.
Today many of the kids served by Harlem’s district schools are kids with extraordinary needs. While demographically they are identical to their charter school counterparts they often bring different experiences to the school. Some have families who may struggle to navigate the enrollment process at charters, or who aren’t able to keep up with charter schools’ draconian expectations (i.e. absences or tardies lead to expulsion). Many are kids who have been kicked out of charter schools because of behavioral or academic needs that the charter schools can’t or won’t meet. Bloomberg’s misguided faith in competition has drastically exacerbated inequity within communities like Harlem while leaving the larger systemic inequity between Black and white, rich and poor residents of New York City untouched.
Targeting Public School Teachers
Meanwhile, Bloomberg perpetually antagonized New York City’s teachers. He truly believed we were the enemy. This was the same era as Michelle Rhee who famously fired a principal on national TV. Bloomberg had the same perspective: the teaching workforce wasn’t an issue of a few bad apples, the whole bunch was rotten. Emblematic of Bloomberg’s ethos was his first choice for schools chancellor, Joel Klein, an attorney with zero experience working in public schools. It makes sense that Klein, who led an antitrust fight with Microsoft, was Bloomberg’s choice. Bloomberg saw public schools and the teachers’ union as a nefarious monopoly.
Under Bloomberg, the city piloted a grading system where teachers got A-F grades based on value-added models. In addition to shaming teachers using unreliable mathematical models, Bloomberg stubbornly refused to give teachers a raise or even negotiate with us (along with 152 public unions). In hindsight, it makes sense that a man who was used to harassing employees and using non-disclosure agreements to protect himself would have such issues with unionized workers.
Bloomberg's Betsy DeVos
The final straw for many teachers and families came when Bloomberg needed to replace Joel Klein. When the time came for a new chancellor for New York City’s 1.1 million students who did Bloomberg choose? Cathie Black, the chair of Hearst Magazines. Black lasted only 95 days in the job, but not before repeatedly embarrassing herself by mocking public school parents who challenged her at meetings.
Cathie Black was the original Betsy DeVos. Her main qualifications for her position were her wealth and her social proximity to the man who hired her. While Black was an accomplished executive, she had no experience in public schools and did not respect the complexities or stakes of the decisions she was tasked with.
Overall, the results of Bloomberg’s policy were mixed when it comes to student performance. On many indicators that matter most to me though, he was a complete failure. He demonized and demoralized public school teachers. Racial segregation worsened. Kids left behind by the expansion of charter schools are being served by schools with fewer resources to meet greater needs.
There is no evidence that Mike Bloomberg has learned from his mistakes as New York City’s mayor. His run for president displays the same arrogance and disregard for democratic processes that he brought to the job then. There have been many who have argued that a President Bloomberg would be marginally different from President Trump. When it comes to the future of this country’s public schools, this is certainly true.