Bloomberg Pushes Democratic Presidential Candidates on Charter Schools

Michael Bloomberg addresses the NAACP

The former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, spoke on July 24 in Detroit, Michigan to the 2019 NACCP annual convention. Excerpts of the portion of his remarks that focused on education follow:

I’d like to focus on a seminal issue facing our country, and where, I believe, we need to demand more of the candidates. This is my message for the day, and it’s an issue that President Obama called the civil rights issue of our time, and I couldn’t agree with him more: public education.

Education holds the key to so many of the major challenges we face.

Want to reduce poverty? Education. Want to reduce crime? Education. Want to reduce homelessness? Education. Want to reduce income inequality? Education. And the list goes on.

But for far too long, zip code and skin color have determined a child’s education. That is wrong – tragically wrong. And I believe fixing it must be our top priority for our country, and for our next president because kids in Harlem and Detroit and Memphis are every bit as equal to kids in Beverly Hills and Grosse Pointe and Scarsdale, and they deserve schools and teachers that are every bit as good.

The sad fact is that the schools doing the worst job preparing students for success are generally in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. Everyone knows that. And I’ve seen it as a mayor, I’ve seen it as a university chairman, and I’ve seen it as an employer.

Now, I’m lucky enough to own a company that has some 20,000 employees, and I can just tell you that one of the biggest challenges facing companies like mine is finding people with the skills we need to fill positions.

Nationwide, there are some 700,000 job openings in technology that employers can’t fill, and in other industries there are millions of open jobs of all types. In fact, there are more open jobs in America than there are people on unemployment.

Just think about that: we have the jobs, but too many of our kids are getting diplomas that are virtually meaningless in the real world instead of the skills employers need. Shame on us.

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.

“One of the main reasons I first decided to run for mayor back in 2001 was that I was tired of hearing the excuses for why New York City schools performed so badly. Over my 12 years in office, I can’t say that we accomplished everything we wanted to, but we took a system that was riddled with drop-out factories and we turned it upside down.

We closed schools that had been failing mostly minority communities for decades, and we opened 650 new schools in their place that outperformed the old schools by wide margins.

We also lengthened the school day. We increased Advanced Placement courses. We reformed teacher tenure. And we created progress reports for every school so parents and principals and teachers can all be held accountable.

In the end, we cut the achievement gap between black and Latino students on the one hand, and white and Asian students on the other, by more than 20 percent.

And we did this even as we raised and increased graduation rates among black and Latino students by 50 percent, making them more proficient in the skills they needed to succeed in college and careers.

We made a big difference in the lives of young people that this organization fights for not simply by making promises or spending more money, but by facing hard truths and putting the needs of students first.

Now it’s true, education in our country is mostly a state and local issue. But we couldn’t have asked for better partners in Washington than President Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan.

Their $4.5 billion Race to the Top program incentivized kids and incentivized schools and pushed New York into setting higher standards using data to hold teachers and principals accountable, turning around low performing schools, supporting the creation of charter schools, and it worked.

When I came into office, listen to this – this is really all you need to know about what we did – when I came into office none of the top 25 elementary and middle schools in New York State were in New York City. Not one in New York City.

When we left office 12 years later, 22 out of the top 25 elementary and middle schools were in New York City. So we went from having zero percent of the best schools in the state to having 90 percent of them. And many of those schools served largely black and Latino students.

No one would have believed that city schools could out-compete suburban schools, and in virtually no place in this country do they. But we did it in New York, and it was a great credit to the teachers, principals, and students in New York City.

Some of the top-performing schools in New York City are public charter schools. Charters around the country often receive less money than traditional public schools, but in New York, at least, they often performed at the very highest levels. And that’s why we created 173 of them, to go along with the hundreds of non-charter public schools we created.

Now that is not to say that charter schools are the end-all and be-all. Some states have done a poor job holding charters accountable for their performance. One of the weakest charter laws is here in Michigan, because conservatives – including Betsy DeVos – have allowed failing charter schools to continue to operate. And that is wrong and it hurts children, and we should not tolerate it. So I share the NAACP’s criticism of these practices, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

In New York, we showed that when charters are granted carefully, and overseen rigorously, the results can be incredibly impressive among millions of kids, giving them the opportunity to succeed in life and pursue their dreams. And that model can work nationally.

Unfortunately, however, the political discussion in America around education has shifted from when President Obama was leading 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.

They want to take options away from our kids, and I don’t think we should do that. You can’t let them do that.

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?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for raising teacher salaries. And when I was mayor, we raised teachers’ salaries in New York City a lot – by 42 percent. That’s probably more than any other large jurisdiction in the country. And we more than doubled the education budget in New York City.

Around the country, the low salaries that many teachers are paid are a disgrace – and I think we should fix it.

I’ve joined with AFT President Randi Weingarten to urge state legislators to do that. But let’s face it, the problem in our schools isn’t just money. The hard truth is it’s also a lack of accountability. It’s a lack of quality school options. It’s low standards and low expectations.

My foundation and I are investing in places that are committed to raising standards and improving achievement levels, and we’re seeing some encouraging results. For example, Denver has nearly closed the gap in tests scores with the rest of the state.

They are proving, just like New York did, that city students can perform at the same level – or higher – as their more affluent neighbors.

We’ve also enlisted more than 100 colleges into something we call the American Talent Initiative. Each of these colleges has committed to enrolling and graduating more low-income, high-achieving students. And we’ve created a program called CollegePoint that helps those same students with the application and financial aid process.

I was able to attend Johns Hopkins University by taking out loans and working my way through school. I recently gave that university a gift from my foundation that is entirely for financial aid so that no student going to Johns Hopkins will ever be turned away for cost.

I want to be sure that every student who applies there has the same chance that I did – no matter what their family income is, or where their neighborhood was…

Now, of course, not every student wants to go to college, you’re saying. And we are working with a number of cities and states to improve career and technical education for those students. And for those students we created 46 vocational schools in New York City, and one of them prepares students for careers in tech and has become a global model. It didn’t hurt that President Obama was so impressed that he came and visited the school.

Whether young people choose a blue collar or white collar profession, they need skills – not only in reading and writing and math, but also the soft skills that every employer values like analyzing problems, working with others, being held accountable, dealing with situations that they don’t agree with your colleagues, and developing a strong work ethic because doing the bare minimum in this day and age is a sure way to lose your job. The world is just much too competitive for that.

Finally, as critically important as good schools are, I think everyone here would agree that the most important teachers in a young child’s life are the parents and family. That’s why one of the first steps I took as mayor was creating a new full-time job in each school in New York City called the ‘parent coordinator.’

The parent coordinator’s job was to make sure that parents had the information and resources they needed to support their children. So when Derrick Johnson told us that the NAACP was developing a new initiative to help parents help their children in school, we were immediately interested, and our team at Bloomberg Philanthropies will be supporting that program with a grant.

The more we can do to help parents, the better off their children – and our whole country – will be. But just because we’re helping parents doesn’t mean we should let politicians off the hook.

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