Bloomberg’s ‘disinterested’ agenda
The mayor's reorganisation of New York schools - and his attack on 'special interests' - reveals a lot about how politics is conducted today.
In a recent spat over city schools, New York mayor Mike Bloomberg referred to the city’s major teaching union as ‘exactly the NRA’ – a reference to the arch-conservative National Rifle Association. While this kind of tough talk is not uncommon in the gritty world of New York’s urban politics, the comment was of more than passing significance. What could the nominally Republican Bloomberg find in common between a liberal union and a right-wing lobby group? The comparison reveals much about Bloomberg’s vision for the New York school system, but also about political debate in an era when our leaders understand themselves as managers.
Bloomberg’s campaign to reorganise city schools is now in its fifth year. A mammoth undertaking given the size of the system (1.1million students, 1,200 schools, 83,000 teachers), Bloomberg’s drive was initially popular and is widely credited with the record breaking 20 per cent margin of victory in his 2005 re-election. Resistance from a number of interested groups has been building, however, and has even managed to obstruct some of the mayor’s more ambitious proposals.
But the criticism has been constrained by posing the battle over the city’s schools in an outdated language of left and right. Opponents attack Bloomberg for being pro-corporate, anti-teacher or anti-principal (head teacher), but critics have not recognised that the central tenet of Bloomberg’s education crusade, and perhaps his politics more widely, is not the defence of a particular set of interests, but an attack on the very idea of interest itself. The mayor prefers that individuals do not speak through collectives and groups that represent specific interests or ideals. Instead, Bloomberg’s ideal world is one in which everyone expresses their interest in an entirely individualised way ‘directly’ to him.
One way in which this vision is articulated is through the language of accountability, a buzzword that runs through every initiative of the Bloomberg administration. (1) Collective interests are seen as barriers to the goal of accountability. So, for instance, Bloomberg assumed complete control over city schools in 2002, abolishing the erstwhile Board of Education, the bureaucracy which had previously run the system. According to the logic of the reform, this has made Bloomberg directly responsible for the success or failure of city education. Meanwhile, the focus on accountability has led to the search for ways to measure school performance. This has included implementing a city-wide curriculum, decentralising spending decisions to individual principals and introducing a ‘report-card’ on school performance to be sent to parents.
A recent proposal to change the school funding procedure seeks to further this project. Currently, teaching staff are allotted to schools on the basis of student numbers, and money is then allocated on the basis of a number of measures – poverty in the school’s neighbourhoods, a city-wide average of the teachers’ wages, the number of non-native English speakers etc. Bloomberg, aided and abetted by his loyal schools chancellor, Joel Klein, has proposed a new scheme whereby school funding would be allocated purely on the basis of student numbers.
By equalising funding for each student, Bloomberg furthers his agenda of accountability in two ways. First, it seems to level the playing field, allowing for a more direct comparison between different schools. As the Department of Education puts it: ‘Schools with comparable students will know they have comparable resources. Not getting a fair share will no longer be an excuse for poor performance.’ (2) Second, it would move the school system closer to the mayor’s market ideal, whereby students, who would take their funding with them should they decide to change schools, would act as consumers within a market place. In this ideal model, they would gravitate toward stronger schools, rewarding their superior education and encouraging those schools’ losing students to improve.
Not that the mayor got his way on this issue. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a union that represents 74,000 New York City teachers and is therefore a major player in education policy, has opposed the plans. They claim, amongst other things, that these changes will make it harder for senior teachers, who command higher salaries, to be hired. In a victory of sorts for the UFT, the mayor referred the plan to a ‘task force’, which includes UFT representatives, for further consideration. But in the sniping that preceded the deal Bloomberg made a number of interesting statements offering some insight into the thinking that drives his reforms.
Most notable was the bad tempered exchange in which Bloomberg described the UFT as ‘exactly the NRA’ (3). In the political demonology of American liberals, comparing an opponent to the NRA is the equivalent of labelling a rival as ‘fascist’ in an internet debate. Bloomberg’s rhetorical gambit reminds us just how far he is from the mainstream of American conservatism. It marked him out as a true coastal liberal, giving the lie to his opportunistic adoption of the Republican Party label in the 2001 election.
More revealing still was Bloomberg’s characterisation of the NRA, and his justification for using it as an epithet for the UFT: ‘You always do have the problem of a very small group of people who are single-issue focused having a disproportionate percentage of power.’ For Bloomberg, the NRA, and by extension the UFT, represent exactly the kind of interest-driven politics he defines himself against. In opposition to the UFT he repeatedly condemned ‘special interests’ while claiming that he and his altruistic allies were ‘standing up for our children’s interest, all our children’s interests’ (4).
This union bashing does not represent a conventional right-wing attack on labour. Bloomberg is not anti-teacher; he regularly refers to teachers as his ‘partners’ in education reform. He has also raised their salaries throughout his administration. He has, however, sought an unconventional relationship with teachers, a direct one that sidesteps their independent articulation of interests through the union.
This is clearest in the Bloomberg administration’s treatment of school principals (who Bloomberg often refers to as middle-managers). Principals are invited to regular lunches with Joel Klein while the former head of their union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, reports that she had to beg to get a meeting with Bloomberg. (5) The administration has also set up the ‘Leadership Academy’ to train future principals rather than letting them rise up through the ranks as happened in the past. This measure was understood as allowing the administration a greater influence over the direction of schools. At the same time, it obstructs the organic process whereby veteran teachers develop autonomous leadership that might exercise influence over the direction of school policy. The idea is to substitute bureaucratic management of teacher development for the more conventional standard of seniority.
A similarly managerial approach is apparent in the calls for parental involvement in schools. In a Department of Education (DOE) booklet, parents’ ‘rights and responsibilities’ are outlined in detail on the basis that the DOE recognises ‘parents are the primary educators of their children’ (6). And there have been repeated attempts to canvass the opinion of parents, most recently in an enormous survey launched last month. (7) Moreover, parents are courted as watchdogs of the administration, monitoring the progress of their children’s schools. Of the plan to issue an annual school report to parents, Bloomberg said: ‘Personally, I can’t think of a better way to hold a principal’s feet to the fire than arming mom and dad with the facts about how well or poorly their children’s school is performing.’ (8)
But the administration’s attitude to parental involvement appears, at first glance, to be contradictory. While endlessly encouraging and soliciting parent input, they have dismantled the Community School Boards that once provided a public forum for discussion of education. And when challenged by parents, the administration has been defensive; parent groups who oppose change are lumped in with the UFT as ‘special interests’. The attitude of the administration is that their apparent ‘disinterest’ – the fact that they claim to have nothing personal at stake in the disputes – is the reason that we should follow their lead on reform. Their supposed position of pure altruism is seen as substantiating their claim to political power and as a way of discrediting their opponents.
Bloomberg does want parental involvement but as guarantors of accountability, not as active citizens. He views parents and students as isolated consumers, their choices providing the ultimate measure of school success. But this market model does not indicate that Bloomberg represents a firmly pro-market position. As noted above, he is no draconian cost cutter. Just as he raised teachers’ salaries, the overall education budget has increased substantially under his watch.
It is more that the kind of individual choices that make up the market system are, by default, the methods by which the Bloomberg administration believes it can assess the school system. Lacking any broader agenda for education, the only measure available to the administration is the aggregation of the individual choices that students and their parents make. In fact, Bloomberg’s attitude seems to be that there shouldn’t be a particular agenda for education. The market mechanisms of adding up consumer preferences, and measuring success or failure through report cards and test scores, is a substitute for the more difficult discussion of what education is all about.
This leads back to the attack on interests. For the Bloomberg administration, any intervening force that disrupts the operation of their market model is corrupting. If individual choice is the ultimate arbiter, we distrust those organisations that might seek to impose their vision on those choices. Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ But she did not entirely believe this; rather she was using the market model as a political weapon against those interests with which she disagreed. (9) Lacking her political agenda, Bloomberg attacks all interests in the name of his own, anti-political (or managerial) vision of education. But the perverse consequence of this is that he establishes himself as ultimate arbiter of individual views, the supreme aggregator of all those choices. In the name of ‘disinterest’ he dictates to those who have an actual stake in the system.
Nick Frayn is a writer and researcher based in New York.
(1) A good overview of Bloomberg’s education policy is offered in this key January 2003 speech delivered at the New York Urban League
(2) Fair Student Funding: Fair Funding for All, Department of Education pamphlet
(3) Blazin’ Bloomberg: Mike fires salvo at school policy foes, comparing them with NRA fanatics, NY Daily News, 10 April 2007
(4) Press Conference, 9 April 2007
(5) The Chancellor’s Mid-Term Exam, New York Magazine, 31 October 2005. Of the meeting, she says: ‘he didn’t shut his mouth for 45 minutes…He sat there in his pressed shirt and his unruffled demeanor, dictating to me how the schools should be run . . . I wanted to puke on his shoes.’
(6) New York City Department of Education: Bill of Parent Rights and Responsibilities
(7) Press release, 30 April. Available at nyc.gov
(8) State of the City speech, 17 January 2007. Available at nyc.gov
(9) This also seems to represent a distinction between Thatcher and Blair. While there is a temptation to present Blair simply as a continuum of Thatcher (for a well-argued example, see Simon Jenkins’ recent comments in the Guardian), the difference is that Thatcher attacked those interests she disagreed with in representing those she agreed with. Bloomberg and Blair (while one would not want to draw too strong a comparison between the two) attack the concept of interest itself, as represented by unions as well as corporate power, professional organisation etc.