As the author of a generally upbeat 2008 report for Education Next on Michael Bloomberg and his takeover of New York City’s schools in 2002, I felt a bit sad reading this morning’s New York Times poll report showing that New Yorkers are now “broadly dissatisfied” with their school system and that “most say the city’s school system has stagnated or declined since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took control of it nine years ago.” Ouch. I recalled the comment of veteran Gotham educator Sy Fliegel, who once told me, “I met with the mayor early on and I said to him, ‘You want to take over the city’s schools? And be held accountable for how they do? Are you crazy?’”
It’s a tough town.
According to the Times poll only 34 percent of New Yorkers approve of Bloomberg’s performance as the education mayor. And Blacks and Hispanics, whose children make up 70 percent of the enrollment in the city’s public schools, says the Times, “expressed the most dissatisfaction, with 64 percent of blacks and 57 percent of Hispanics saying they are generally not satisfied, compared with 50 percent of whites.”
Though reporters Sharon Otterman and Allison Kopicki concede that “dissatisfaction with public schools in New York is longstanding” and that in the 1990s through the first few years of Bloomberg control “few residents were satisfied,” one thing is clear: the bloom is off. The third term has been especially hard on the billionaire mayor, notably due to the loss of Joel Klein, who had worked closely with Bloomberg in remaking the nation’s largest school district during his eight-year tenure as chancellor, and the bad stumble with naming publishing exec Cathleen Black as Klein’s replacement.
The crux of the issue may be that of fickle fates versus substantive reform. Bloomberg did dismantle the old system, which no one seemed to like. He abolished the 32 patronage-laden community school boards and relocated the education department’s headquarters to City Hall’s back yard. He broke up big schools, gave principals more autonomy, introduced a tough school grading system, doubled the budget, won the Broad Prize, and ushered in a golden era for charter schools. There will continue to be skirmishes about the data – “graduation rates are at an all-time high and we are outpacing the rest of the state on test scores,” a spokeswoman tells the Times – and wrangling over issues like class size, cheating, and union constraints, but I doubt very much anyone would want to return to the old system.