Mayor Bloomberg’s amazing education speech in Harlem was as notable for what he chose not to say as for the actual reform initiatives he announced. Bloomberg did not offer a single excuse for the disastrous state of the city’s schools. He didn’t claim that a lack of money was responsible for school failure. Nor did he attribute that failure to poverty or racism. He didn’t whine for more money from Washington or Albany.
The mayor’s unsparing analysis represents a radical departure from the "lack of adequate resources" rationale for school failure used so effectively by the teachers’ union and its political allies in order to block any serious discussion of school reform. The mayor made a point of emphasizing that the city was now spending the whopping sum of $12 billion a year ($10,000 per pupil) on K–12 education, yet 1,000 of the city’s 1,200 schools are failing, and most of the children still aren’t learning to read and write. To Bloomberg, this was a "disgrace" and the city’s "shame." Moreover, there was no one to blame but the bureaucratic system the city itself had created and tolerated for so long.
What is remarkable is that this is the same mayor who made the following statement several months ago about the prospects of finding savings in city agencies: "I can’t tell you there’s a lot of waste in this city. . . . The city has been fundamentally well run." Whatever the mayor still believes about other city agencies, he has obviously discovered that there is a huge amount of waste in the school system. Merely by eliminating the 32 community school districts and removing redundant bureaucrats from the district offices, the mayor now estimates that the city could create 8,000 new classroom seats. He pointed out that this was nearly as much additional classroom space as the city is due to get from its current five-year capital program. Moreover, despite the fiscal crisis, the mayor anticipates enough savings from trimming bureaucratic fat to allow additional class size reductions in all the city’s middle schools. The mayor also identified the $3 billion procurement budget as rife with mismanagement and a source of huge potential savings.
Mayor Bloomberg’s speech is a vindication of sorts for those of us in the radical school reform movement who have insisted that the school system has plenty of money but not nearly enough accountability and competition. I was struck by how much of Bloomberg’s text might have appeared in the pages of City Journal or other conservative media outlets. To describe the dysfunctional school system, Bloomberg used language like "Alice in Wonderland structure;" "bureaucratic dinosaurs;" "redundant administrative wheel spinning;" "bureaucratic sclerosis;" "Byzantine administrative fiefdoms." Mayor Bloomberg said he wanted to free principals from “the dead hand of bureaucracy,” and he defined the core mission of the schools as "classroom instruction for students, not jobs for bureaucrats." Above all, standing in front of a portrait of Martin Luther King at Harlem’s Shomburg Center, he rightly termed the effort to reform the schools as a civil rights battle.
In his revolution from the top, Mayor Bloomberg has already emptied out the old Board of Education headquarters at 110 Livingston Street, and pretty soon the moving vans will be pulling up to the 40 superintendent’s offices. In the place of this "blob," Mayor Bloomberg proposes a military-style, centralized chain of command from his own office right down to every school in the system. I am suspicious of top-down control in education, but if the mayor carries out his promise to install an E. D. Hirsch–type core curriculum, plus a back-to-basics reading program, in each of the schools, he might well succeed. Another benefit is that it would drive the progressive ed schools crazy.
For obvious tactical political reasons there was not a single mention of the teachers’ union in Mayor Bloomberg’s speech. Smashing the bureaucracy is one thing; taming the teachers’ union, the 800-pound gorilla of New York State politics, would be an achievement of a different order. No recent mayor has been able to do it.
The ultimate objective of Bloomberg’s reorganization is to identify 1,200 great principals, give them the authority and support to run great schools, and then hold them accountable. But there is no point in freeing principals from the shackles of the old bureaucracy if those same principals can’t hire and fire their own staff, assign teachers to classes and other duties based on the needs of the students and the school, and reward good teacher performance with higher pay—powers denied them by the current teachers’ union contract.
By blowing up the Board of Ed, admitting the extent of the city’s educational failure, and proposing some essential solutions, the mayor has bravely begun the school reform campaign. The next big battle will come in May, when the teachers’ contract, with all its initiative-killing work rules, comes up for renegotiation. That will be the decisive battle—and, as the mayor himself has stated, there are no more excuses for failure.