On Education, Bloomberg Is Everywhere

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla., in January.
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla., in January.

The nation’s two largest teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, teamed up this month to warn schools against “active shooter” lockdown drills that wind up doing more to scare students than to increase their preparedness.

Most of the headlines about that story missed one of the biggest angles — the role of a Democratic presidential candidate in bringing the two unions together on the issue. The NPR article about the union action did mention “the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.” But NPR did not mention that the Everytown for Gun Safety is largely an operation of Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City who is now running for president as a Democrat.

The Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund received $5 million from the Bloomberg Family Foundation in 2017, according to the Bloomberg Family Foundation’s most recent tax filing. The president of the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, according to the group’s most recent tax filing, is John Feinblatt, who was criminal justice coordinator in Bloomberg’s City Hall. The treasurer of the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund is Ed Skyler, who was Bloomberg’s mayoral spokesman and deputy mayor for operations. The vice president of the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund is Richard DeScherer, who is chief legal officer of Bloomberg L.P. A director of the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund is Megan Sheekey, another former Bloomberg City Hall aide who now works at Bloomberg Associates and is the sister of Bloomberg’s presidential campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey. There’s a separate Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund whose chairman is DeScherer, whose president is Feinblatt, and whose secretary and treasurer is Diane Gubelli, a partner at Geller and Company, which is Bloomberg’s accounting firm.

In other words, even when you look somewhere in the education world that you might not expect to find Michael Bloomberg — say, a joint statement by public employee unions of the sort that Bloomberg publicly clashed with as mayor — his philanthropic footprint in the world of education and beyond is so vast that he’s almost impossible to avoid.

Bloomberg’s charitable giving, which overall has totaled more than $8 billion, has generated positive headlines and grateful thank you notes for years. Now Bloomberg is climbing in the presidential polls. He is third nationally among the Democrats in the Real Clear Politics average. He has qualified for his first presidential debate. He has been insulted on Twitter as “Mini Mike” by President Trump. As a result, Bloomberg’s philanthropy is likely to attract increased scrutiny, both for what it discloses about his policy preferences and for how it has offered Bloomberg an opportunity to build relationships and alliances outside the highly regulated and disclosed sphere of more usual political campaign finance. This is especially so because there is substantial overlap between the personnel of the Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bloomberg 2020 presidential campaign. Patti Harris, the CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies, is also the chair of the presidential campaign. Michael Bloomberg the philanthropist and charitable donor is also Michael Bloomberg the political candidate.

An Education Next review of the most recent tax filing for the Bloomberg Family Foundation Inc found Bloomberg involvement in education reform efforts at the national and local levels in ways that hasn’t been widely appreciated or reported elsewhere. Our analysis omits some large gifts, such as $16 million to the Museum of Science, Boston for the William and Charlotte Bloomberg Science Education Center or $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University to expand financial aid. It also omits gifts to universities that are primarily for non-education-policy purposes, such as $2.8 million to NYU for a “state energy and environmental impact center,” or $2 million to Columbia for design and construction of new business school facilities, or $3.1 million to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to support obesity prevention. Our analysis doesn’t capture gifts made by Bloomberg’s company, Bloomberg L.P., or by Bloomberg himself outside his family foundation. Even with those caveats, though, it’s quite a tally: in the calendar year 2017, by this admittedly narrow definition, more than $63 million in education grants either paid or approved for future payment. In May 2018, Bloomberg announced general plans to donate $375 million over five years to education initiatives.

Where did the money go?

Bloomberg’s biggest bets were on a few places that are nationally recognized as hotspots for education reform.

The biggest of the grants listed with the purpose of “to improve outcomes for K-12 students in the U.S.” was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the Bloomberg Family Foundation in 2017 paid or approved $11,146,000 to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. John White, the state superintendent of education in Louisiana, was deputy schools chancellor in New York City under Mayor Bloomberg. The Baton Rogue Advocate reported in 2014 that Bloomberg had made $105,000 in campaign contributions aimed at swaying local school board elections in Louisiana, on top of an earlier $545,000 in spending on the state-level education board. (A New York Times article published over the weekend mentioned the Baton Rouge spending.)

The second-largest of these locally targeted expenditures — $9,398,000 in grants either paid or approved in 2017 — went to the D.C. Public Education Fund in the District of Columbia, where Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s trailblazing efforts to reform how teachers are evaluated and paid have endured and have appeared to yield results well past her departure.

Denver, Colorado, whose education reform efforts, including pay-for-performance, a common enrollment system, choice and competition, and district-charter collaboration, were the topic of a recent Education Next cover article (“Redesigning Denver’s Schools” Spring 2019), won $2 million in funding from Bloomberg through the Denver Public Schools Foundation, with an additional $1.3 million coming in smaller grants to groups including Denver Succeeds, Colorado Succeeds, Civic Canopy, and the Rose Community Foundation.

The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit whose education reform efforts were also highlighted in a recent Education Next article (“The Hoosier Way,” Spring 2020), received $2.4 million from Bloomberg.

Additional locally targeted Bloomberg money for the purpose of “To improve outcomes for K-12 students in the U.S” went to, among other sites, Chicago ($350,000 to Braven, Inc.); New Orleans; Florida ($2.3 million to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education); Tulsa, Oklahoma ($2,150,000 to the Foundation for Tulsa Schools); and Oakland, California ($650,000 to the Oakland Public Education Fund). Bloomberg campaigned last month in Tulsa, where he unveiled a plan to build wealth for black Americans.

The Bloomberg Philanthropies 2019 annual report explains the charity’s work on what it calls “K-12 education reform” by saying that Bloomberg “supports education reform throughout the United States. He personally backs pro-reform public officials who work to enact meaningful policy changes that will ensure accountability and high standards in schools. This work is grounded in the belief that the solutions required to improve education need broad coalitions that put students’ interests first.” It further explains, “to measure progress, this work focuses on increasing high school graduation and college enrollment rates as well as improving academic achievement. The work has been focused in states like Tennessee and Louisiana, cities like Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis, Indiana, and other communities across the country.”

In addition to the locally targeted grants, Bloomberg also did back some national groups. He gave or approved $2,090,000 to Chiefs for Change, an organization of school superintendents that works for education reform. Another $1 million went to Educators of Color, “a membership organization dedicated to elevating the leadership, voices and influence of people of color in education.” Bloomberg gave or approved $4,875,000 to the Stand for Children Leadership Center, led by Jonah Edelman, a Rhodes scholar and a son of Marian Wright Edelman and Peter Edelman. Bloomberg also put $500,000 into The 74, a website that covers education.

Politicians across the political spectrum, including President Trump, have expressed support for vocational and technical education. Bloomberg has put his own money behind it, approving a total of $4 million in grants to groups in Denver (Careerwise Colorado) and New Orleans (Youthforce NOLA) in those areas.

Bloomberg’s giving has also focused on the aim of “To promote college access and success for high achieving low and middle income families.” Grants in that category went to College Possible in St. Paul, Minnesota ($3,748,000); Matriculate, Inc. in New York City ($1,375,000) and the National College Advising Corps. ($2.2 million). The founding board chair of the College Advising Corps is Peter Grauer, the chairman of Bloomberg L.P.

Finally, one last example demonstrating, like the teachers union statement on live-shooter lockdown drills, that Bloomberg is everywhere in education philanthropy, even where you might least expect him to be. According to the Bloomberg Family Foundation Inc. tax return, the foundation created by the Jewish and vocally pro-abortion-rights businessman and politician donated $1.7 million to the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, Inc. That group supports scholarships to Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of New York, schools that have been the subject of some signature research by Education Next’s senior editor, Paul Peterson.

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.

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