Mike Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, recently showed up for the first time on a debate stage with other leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, and there were exactly no questions asked of him about education. It seems like a subject ripe for exploration, given that:

  • Bloomberg alone among the Democratic candidates has been in charge of a public school system, in this case the country’s largest.
  • Education was a central focus of his three-term tenure as mayor.
  • His education overhaul was, if nothing else, highly controversial.

In this article are some questions that could be asked of the billionaire Bloomberg, who was mayor from 2002 to 2013. But first, some background informing the questions.

Shortly after becoming mayor, Bloomberg persuaded the New York legislature to strip power from the district’s Board of Education and give it to him. Believing employing business practices in the operation of schools would improve student performance, he selected a non-educator, Joel Klein, as chancellor of the 1.1 million-student district.

Klein was a corporate executive and former head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division. He and Bloomberg insisted bad teachers were the biggest cause of low performance by students — not outside influences — and said they believed they could use students’ standardized test scores to identify “bad” teachers.

Bloomberg and Klein believed in operating schools as if they were businesses. They closed nearly 100 low-performing schools and opened small ones; fueled the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated; gave principals more autonomy, and raised pay for teachers but attacked teacher tenure and union-backed due process.

They also elevated the primacy of student standardized tests, using the scores to evaluate teachers and principals even though assessment experts have long said the method being used was neither fair nor valid for high-stakes decisions. Klein fought with the United Federation of Teachers over his decision to publicly release teachers’ names and their ratings, which came from student test scores.

In 2009, William C. Thompson Jr., former comptroller of New York, wrote a piece for HuffPost that called for Klein to be fired. Thompson wrote that his office had conducted audits “exposing shoddy oversight regarding high school graduation rates and standardized test administration” and found that the New York City Department of Education “engaged in sloppy and unprofessional practices that encourage data manipulation and cheating.” He also wrote Klein “consistently embraced measures designed more to sell the idea of a system helping our students to attain critical achievement goals than to target those goals directly.”

During the Klein years, state test scores rose. Bloomberg, while running for reelection in 2009, declared two-thirds of the district’s students were passing English and 82 percent were passing math.

But on July 28, 2010, state education officials said the rise in scores was misleading. It turned out, they said, the tests had become increasingly easy to pass. They said when tougher standards were applied, more than half of public school students in New York City failed their English exams that year, while 54 percent passed in math.

Yes, the state tests had become too easy to pass, the state announced. Not long after that, in late 2010, Klein resigned as chancellor, ending his eight-year tenure.

Bloomberg over the years defended his education record; for example, while on a panel on big-city school reform in 2012, Bloomberg repeated a claim he has made before: “We have closed the gap between black and Latino kids and white and Asian kids,” he said. “We have cut it in half.” Actually, that claim had been discredited repeatedly by experts and the news media. And claims of strong upward progress by New York students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national test given to select groups of students, also have been debunked.

SOME QUESTIONS FOR BLOOMBERG:

1) Much of the education success you touted while you were mayor relied on scores on standardized tests found in 2010 to have gotten increasingly easy. Do you think this taints your claims of progress, and if not, why?

2) In 2013, you blamed the teachers union for stalled talks on a new teacher evaluation system, and, in an expression of anger on your radio show, you compared the United Federation of Teachers to the National Rifle Association. You have also called the NRA “shameful and “dangerous.” Do you believe the teachers union is really as shameful and dangerous as you believe the NRA to be, or were you speaking out of pique?

3) You have been a strong supporter of charter schools. Even as many Democrats, who used to support charters, have acknowledged problems with them, you remain a steadfast supporter. Critics have noted that charter schools in some states are rife with fraud and allowed to operate with little oversight, and in other places they take away vital resources from traditional school districts.

Do you believe any of the criticisms of charters have merit? If so, what would you do as president regarding charter schools?

4) Do you believe, as do President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, that public money should be available for use by families for private and religious school tuition? You have declined to answer this question in the past.

5) When you were mayor, you hired two non-educators to be New York schools chancellor: Klein and after he resigned, Cathleen Black, a former USA Today publisher and head of Hearst Magazines. Neither had education experience, and Black had not attended public schools. Black lasted less than four months in office. Do you think it is important to hire an educator or someone from the world of education as U.S. education secretary, and if not, why?

6) At a 2019 convention of the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the country, you made comments that included the following:

Our schools are not preparing students for the tests that they will face in the job market, and the tests that they are taking in school often set the bar far too low.
Now I know testing these days isn’t popular. But if we shield our children from taking tests that measure essential skills, three bad things happen. Number one: teachers can’t possibly know if students are on track. Number two: parents don’t know if they’re falling behind. And number three: students don’t acquire the kind of knowledge, and discipline, and experience they will need to pass tests in the real world. And if they don’t pass tests in the real world, they don’t get the job.
That is the hard truth, and every business leader will tell you that, but too many politicians are afraid to say it. … Today, most Democrats running for President are avoiding talking about President Obama, and they are also avoiding talking about charter schools, or actually opposing them. … So when you hear a candidate talk about education as a civil rights issue, ask yourself: are they speaking hard truths, like President Obama did? Or just politically convenient truths, like increasing spending?

Do you still think that standardized tests are important assessment tools for teachers and students, and do you think that increased spending is not necessary in American schools?

7) In 2011, you told an MIT conference how schools could be quickly improved. You said:

I would, if I had the ability — which nobody does really — to just design a system and say, ‘ex cathedra, this is what we’re going to do,’ you would cut the number of teachers in half, but you would double the compensation of them and you would weed out all the bad ones and just have good teachers. And double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students.

Bloomberg, research on the subject shows reducing class size, depending on how much, improves student outcomes. Do you still believe class size doesn’t matter? Has any teacher ever told you it would be great to double their class size if they got paid more?

8) You have donated a lot of money to school board races in other cities and states to try to elect people who support your vision of school reform. Why do you think it is appropriate for a billionaire from one city to use his money to influence school boards races in other states?