Michael Bloomberg: Disdain for Democracy
Rule of law for us and none for him
Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a series of articles on Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
During his first campaign as mayor, Michael Bloomberg said "I've spent my career thinking about the strategies that institutions in the private sector should pursue, and the more I learn about this institution called New York City, the more I see the ways in which it needs to think like a private company."
Michael Bloomberg billed himself as the original "CEO mayor" to manage the city of New York, as if it were a corporation.
To Bloomberg, "running a private company" meant "obey the CEO." He wrote in his book,"A major part of the CEO's responsibilities is to be the ultimate risk taker and decision maker In return, employees must trust the CEO's judgment and fall in line with his decisions. Either they believe in me, trust me, and are willing to take the risk that I will deliver success, or they don’t. It's that simple. There's no haggling. I don’t negotiate"
Cities are not private companies. Cities have residents. The mayor's job is to improve the living conditions for the residents within the city. A city is supposed to be a democratic institution governed by mass-consensus. It involves haggling and negotiating with his constituency. Early on in his mayoral career, his outward contempt for democracy was put on full display when he tried to "reform" education.
He advocated for the removal of a democratically-elected school board to give him sole dictatorial powers over the operation of New York City schools. Unfortunately for him, he could not unilaterally issue an edict to assume full control of New York City schools. He lobbied Gov. Pataki to change New York state law that would allow him unprecedented powers in how schools were run. The state legislature and governor obliged.
Drunk on power, Mayor Bloomberg fired the school administrator and hired Joel Klein, an attorney with the DOJ, who later went to work for Newscorp (Fox News). Together, Bloomberg and Klein hatched a plan to centralize the 1200 or more public schools into one unaccountable and anti-democratic hierarchy.
The “reforms” began with the Mayor firing half the staff who worked in the New York City’s schools. He also reorganized the educational board, which used to make the important decisions. He gave himself the power to unilaterally appoint 8 of the 13 board members, thereby creating a rubber stamp for every dictatorial whim he wanted to exercise on school children.
As the New York Times’ article from 2004 stated, his first bold initiative was to develop a testing system for third graders and fail every 8-year old who didn’t “pass” their arbitrary tests.
The city's Panel for Educational Policy yesterday approved Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's plan to impose strict promotion requirements for third graders, but only after the mayor and the Staten Island borough president fired and replaced three members just before the vote.
The article went on to further explain his actions:
With three new members in place, the panel voted 8 to 5 to approve the mayor's policy. One of the mayor's appointees cast his yes vote by videoconference from Tokyo. Although Mr. Klein said they had resigned, the three panel members said in interviews that they had been tersely dismissed and had intended to vote against the mayor's plan.
Michael Bloomberg expressed his outer contempt for democracy when he remarked
This is what mayoral control is all about. In the olden days, we had a board that was answerable to nobody. And the Legislature said it was just not working, and they gave the mayor control. Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much. They are my representatives, and they are going to vote for things that I believe in.
During his mayoral term, he found democratic processes irritating. He'd often unconstitutionally circumvent the city council, when they disagreed with him, as in the Soda ban. The court invalidated it because the Mayor had not merely tried to enforce a city ordinance. Instead, he had completely ignored city council and enacted an ordinance himself. Justice Tingling declared, would “not only violate the separation of powers doctrine; it would eviscerate it.”
During the 10-year long Muslim surveillance program, the NYPD frequently stepped outside of its jurisdiction, with the knowledge of the Mayor. Mayor Bloomberg defended the NYPD's surveillance explicitly outside its jurisdiction.
He has refused to enforce laws that the city council passed by overriding mayoral vetoes on numerous occasions. In fact, his own firm, once ignored a sick-leave law that was passed by the city council after overriding his veto.
Educational Wrecking Ball
Besides the open contempt for democracy, the CEO style of governance is fundamentally incompatible in creating a community. The CEO of a for-profit corporation has a fiduciary duty to work in the best interest of the shareholders, which often translates to maximizing shareholder value of the company.
Robert McNamara worked at Ford Motor company after World War II. He studied various processes at Ford Motor company and boiled it down to quantitative metrics to figure out how to optimize company operations. For example, total number of widgets produced in an assembly line, is probably a good indicator of whether the machinery is in optimal condition. He later became the Secretary of Defense under both the Kennedy and Johnson administration.
As Defense Secretary, McNamara brought the same kind of technocracy to the Vietnam war. He listed enemy body count as a metric. He ordered people to report these numbers directly. He also tied the enemy body count metrics with rewards on the field. On the ground, however, each superior handed down the body count metric which trickled down. On the ground, soldiers were incentivize to kill as many Vietnamese people as possible. Solders would kill entire villages, and report them as VC or "Viet Cong" even if they were merely farmers minding their own business.
Today, this type of faulty reasoning is known as the McNamara Fallacy .
Mayor Bloomberg's approach to managing every city department was a giant exercise in the McNamara fallacy. The first victim of his wrecking ball was the public schooling system.
As philosopher Henry Giroux notes in his article Business Culture and the Death of Public Education: Mayor Bloomberg, David Steiner, and the Politics of Corporate "Leadership", the philosophy of education espoused by Bloomberg is:
Rationalized in economic terms, the new neoliberal educational reformers render education as a major force in creating a politically compliant and technologically savvy labor force, while disregarding any pedagogical conditions that enable students to exercise independent thought and ethical stewardship as part of a larger project designed to meet the needs of a democratic polity. What is emerging out of this anti-public model of education is the Walmart approach to schooling in which students are viewed as a cheap supply of labor and their education is valued only to the extent that it builds "a better work force"
In his speech on educational vision, Mayor Bloomberg's explicitly outlined the Walmart approach. He said:
In an information age global economy as we have today, all of our students must learn to read proficiently and critically...write fluently and persuasively...understand and employ mathematical concepts and analytical reasoning...and perform effectively in the collaborative settings that have become the new workplace norm.
Henry Girioux explained the tenets of "corporatization" of education.
It is also part and parcel of a free-market ideology that assumes that all social, economic, educational, and political problems can be solved through the template of a business culture increasingly characterized by top-down modes of governance, unchecked financial recklessness, contempt for democratic modes of deliberation, hatred of unions and teachers' rights, disdain for all things public, and flight from social and moral issues.
He began his "reforms" in 2003, by abolishing community school boards, local control of education to a centralized structure that only looked at the metrics and sometimes did it in very cruel ways. Mayor Bloomberg sent his own daughters to a posh private school: The Spence School. Private schools are exempt from DOE oversight. In the Spence School, children learn to expand their mind and are taught to achieve greatness. In the public schools, on the other hand, if the children fail the entirely arbitrary test set-up by the Mayor's hand-picked cronies, their school risked a shutdown.
In a clever way, Mayor Bloomberg also gamed the system himself. In 2002, George W. Bush signed "No Child Left Behind"(NCLB) into law. NCLB takes measures fourth grade and eighth grade reading and math levels. Mayor Bloomberg gamed the system by instituting mandatory tests in the third and seventh grade level, where students who failed these tests would be held back. This way, students that were deemed "below par" would never be in fourth and eighth grades to look bad for the national measurements. Eventually, he extended the absurd standardized testing policy to even pre-schoolers. The Spence School, like all other private schools, is exempt from all DOE oversight and his daughters didn't have to take these annual tests.
Mayor Bloomberg's made sure to replace hired former GE-executive Joel Welch for the principal training program.The program turned out to be a disaster. Nearly 20 million dollars of city money and $69 million of private money was paid for this program. Meanwhile, at this academy, principals who taught at schools that Bloomberg pre-identified as "low-achievement" received a "failing" grade. One parent called this style "management by intimidation."
Instead of trained teachers who advanced through the ranks to become principals, the schools with the poorest students, black students, Latinos and other minorities were overseen corporate middle-management who were the type of "yes-men" that Bloomberg wanted. These corporate-middle management types obligatorily carried out any ridiculous suggestion that Bloomberg would cook up. The Gotham Gazette reported:
The Department of Education closed what it viewed as failing schools across the city and opened dozens of small high schools. It encouraged and aided the establishment of charter schools. Accountability became a watchword, linked largely to standardized tests. A reshuffling eliminated the new "education regions" and put greater authority in the hands of individual principals.
In 2005, he tried to create a Wallstreet type bonuses for teachers called "merit pay" and increased their overall working hours. Merit pay is a disaster for students, educators and fosters an environment that is competitive and bad for caring and nurturing children. Former DOE employee Fred Smith wrote:
More and more of the mayor’s educational initiatives were linked to the scores. They were used to help decide which schools should be closed and replaced with new, smaller schools. The new A-through-F grading system for schools was based primarily on how their students improved on the tests. Teachers and principals earned bonuses of up to $25,000 if their schools’ scores rose. Teachers’ annual evaluations and tenure decisions are partially dependent on test results.
Bloomberg closed down "failing" schools and replaced them with unscientific charter schools. Charter schools:
a) don't have an obligation to teach every student and can pick and choose
b) are operated by for-profit companies that are paid by the city.
This means that educating a child takes a backseat to ensuring profits for the company that operates these schools. In the book, Educational Wars, Andrea Gabor, writes about how Bloomberg's educational policy worked in reality:
Harlem, in particular, has become the center of an unintentional educational experiment—one that has been replicated in neighborhoods and cities around the country. During the Bloomberg years, when close to a quarter of students in the area were enrolled in charter schools, segregation increased, as did sizable across-the-board demographic disparities among the students who attended each type of school. An analysis of Bloomberg-era education department data revealed that public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double—and several have triple—the proportion of special needs kids of nearby charter schools. The children in New York’s traditional public schools are much poorer than their counterparts in charter schools. And public schools have far higher numbers of English language learners… In backing charter schools Bloomberg and other advocates pointed to one clear benefit: charters, it was widely accepted, would increase standardized test scores. However, years of studies showed little difference between the test-score performance of students in charter schools and those in public schools.” After the Education Wars, p. 95)
He undermined teacher’s unions by replacing shutting down “failing public schools”, which had unionized teachers and replaced them with privatized charter schools, where the teachers were not unionized. Since 2002, he's closed almost 200 low-performing schools and allowed privately managed charter schools to flourish in this district of more than 1 million students. He even "finessed state law" by having public schools share the same building as charter schools to overcompensate for the maximum allowable charter schools. According to a UFT member:
The combination of phony claims, greater principal accountability and tighter budgets is a potentially explosive mix. The administration has created a Potemkin Village of false facades and fake accomplishments while driving the workers behind the scenes harder and harder to maintain the illusion. It is a dangerous game to play. The truth would serve our kids far better."
He also created a violent, frightening environment for students. During the late 90s, the corporate media amped up racist fears over "gangs" in schools. In response, war-like tactics were advocated by many people from many parties. However, Mayor Bloomberg, an advocate for mass surveillance, kicked up these draconian policies into high gear.
In December 2003, Mayor Bloomberg and his hand-picked School Chancellor sent out a memo to the city highlighting a new school safety plan. He placed police officers in schools. He also placed metal detectors in school, which meant children had to go to school 30-40 minutes earlier to get past the security checkpoints. He also instituted a zero-tolerance policy which criminalizes ordinary student behavior. Predictably, the number of suspensions handed down on an annual basis increased by 132% under Mayor Bloomberg.
In 2006, Mayor Bloomberg announced that police officers would randomly search students backpacks without any warning in an effort to curb "delinquent behavior." Going overboard is an understatement. During one of the random searches, officers confiscated highlighters and color markers at DeWitt Clinton High School because they wanted to prevent "graffiti."
In a 2010 lawsuit, the ACLU sued Mayor Bloomberg and his policy because
NYPD School Safety Division personnel arrest students for minor violations of school rules that do not constitute probable cause of criminal activity, and detain those students off school grounds, often at police precincts; and (b) NYPD School Safety Division personnel handcuff students and detain them in seclusion rooms in school buildings for minor violations of school rules that do not constitute probable cause of criminal activity
The presence of school safety officers criminalized ordinary childhood behavior. In 2010, a 12-year-old girl named Alexa was arrested, brutalized and handcuffed for doodling on a desk, which is a normal activity that most children engage in. In the previous year, a 12-year-old sixth-grader, identified in the lawsuit as M.M., was arrested in March 2009 for doodling on her desk at another school in New York City. Alexa was taken to juvenile court and assigned eight hours of community service for this act of "vandalism." Children as young as five were handcuffed for ordinary behavior.