On Monday, January 19, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke at the closing luncheon of the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. His speech meandered across all the obvious points, including immigration, the eco-friendliness of urban life, and economic recovery: “If we can spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the big banks, why can’t we spend $5 or $10 billion on cities?”, asked the former investment banker.
But Bloomberg devoted the most time what he has said he wants to be his signature issue as mayor: education. On the eve of the first African-American president’s inauguration, Bloomberg attempted to claim the mantle of civil rights leaders, saying that a failure to provide equal educational opportunities is a failure to achieve the goals of the civil rights movement. It’s funny that Bloomberg has discovered his inner civil rights activist today, and not, say, four and a half years ago when he was supporting President Bush’s re-election campaign, notwithstanding the Bush administration’s appointing of anti-civil rights judges to the bench and evisceration of the Justice Department’s civil rights enforcement efforts.
“Vast differences exist between ethnicities in reading and math skills. Shame on us!” declared Bloomberg, with what passes by his standards as dramatic flourish. Bloomberg, alas, accepts the inherently conservative premise that education is “a local issue.”
“Most of all, in the end, education is a local thing,” said Bloomberg. If you proceed from that assumption, educational inequality will always persist, because wealthier districts will have students with more social capital and better funding. If Bloomberg really wanted to take this opportunity to organize American mayors for a better national education policy, he would call for a concerted campaign to nationalize education funding and regionalize school districts.
Bloomberg offered no specific ideas on how to achieve greater educational equality. “It’s up to us as mayors,” he said. “If we have control of the schools or not, we have the bully pulpit,” said Bloomberg in his final flourish of inspirational speaking. Not every mayor has the dictatorial inclinations that Bloomberg does, which he used to take direct control of the New York public schools. Bully pulpits are over-rated.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.