News that Michael Bloomberg is moving closer to entering the Democratic presidential race offers a big opportunity for the cause of education reform.
Plenty of skeptics will dismiss his candidacy. The last billionaire from New York who seriously looked at the race, Howard Schultz of Starbucks fame, didn’t get any traction. There are two urban education-reformers, Cory Booker and Michael Bennet, already running, and they aren’t getting much traction, either. Another New York City mayor originally from Massachusetts, Bill de Blasio, already ran for president this election cycle and got no traction. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper ran as an education reformer and got no traction. And if Bloomberg is hoping to capture Democratic voters who have their hearts set on a Jewish candidate from New York who is in his late 70s, Bernie Sanders already has that demographic covered.
As someone who lived in New York City during Bloomberg’s mayoralty and who covered him as managing editor of the New York Sun, I’m here to tell you it would be a mistake to underestimate him.
There are factors that may not be immediately obvious. Bloomberg has really good operatives. Howard Wolfson, to whom Bloomberg has been referring questions about his political intentions, is experienced and effective. So are Kevin Sheekey, Stu Loeser, and Douglas Schoen. And because Bloomberg News employs many journalists at above-market wages in an era in which journalism jobs at above-market wages are rare, Bloomberg will get better-than-ordinary treatment from the press. Progressives inclined to be skeptical of Bloomberg as a billionaire former Republican who endorsed George W. Bush in 2004 may be intrigued or at least mollified when they learn just how thoroughly left-of-center he is on abortion, climate change, and gun control.
The thing to remember about Bloomberg is that he is an Eagle Scout. One of the elements of the Scout Law is that a scout is brave.
To get a sense of how Bloomberg might enliven the campaign on the education front, take a look at his remarks from July at the NAACP annual convention:
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?
Testing and charters were an important part of Bloomberg’s toolkit in New York. There, too, he attracted talent—Dennis Walcott, Joel Klein, and the team of education reformers that worked for them and have since gone on to pursue change in other districts and organizations: Paymon Rouhanifard, Christopher Cerf, Cami Anderson, John White…the list goes on.
But at the core of it was a kind of bravery—the character trait that allowed him to take on the teachers union, the entrenched bureaucracy, and the status quo.
Not everything that Bloomberg did in New York worked out. I was disappointed that his courage when it came to testing and charters never extended to supporting vouchers or a scholarship-tax-credit program that would have helped parents access Jewish, Catholic, and other private schools as alternatives to the local public schools. Instead, under Bloomberg, Catholic schools in New York closed in part because Bloomberg was using the taxing power of government to outbid them for high-quality teachers. But there’s little doubt that the public schools improved under his leadership as mayor. As he told it in the NAACP speech, while he was mayor the city opened 173 charter schools and he increased graduation rates for black and Latino students. (The Spring 2008 issue of Education Next offered an assessment of Bloomberg’s education record, “New York City’s Education Battles.”)
Bloomberg may yet decide not to enter the race. If he does, education is only one of many issues voters will consider. If he gets to a general election, Bloomberg would be facing off against President Trump, whose plan for a tax credit that states could use to support school choice scholarships goes beyond anything Bloomberg has publicly backed.
I suppose there’s some downside risk that if Bloomberg does get in and is clobbered by the teachers unions to the point of a humiliating defeat, it would be a setback for the cause of reform. But knowing Bloomberg and knowing the substance of these issues, I see that as an unlikely outcome. If Bloomberg gets in and fails to win, it will be in spite of his education record and stance, not because of it.
Who knows—his example might even encourage some other Democratic presidential candidates to return to backing education reform in the Clinton-Obama tradition. Causes and constituencies in American politics are generally better off being competed for by both political parties rather than being taken for granted by one or the other. Education reform is no exception. If Bloomberg is brave enough, video from that speech to the NAACP will soon be airing on television commercials and in Facebook video ads targeting Democratic primary states.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next. The journal’s editor-in-chief, Martin West, is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of Education at Harvard University. Michael Bloomberg endowed the chair but plays no role in choosing recipients.