Reuters

There's no doubt the mayor deserves credit for major improvements to New York City schools, but the one thing he'd like to be remembered for is also his least clear-cut success story.

As we near the end of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's last term, much attention will no doubt turn to his legacy. About a three-term mayor of the largest U.S. city, not to mention one who has served at a critical time in history for global cities, there is plenty to be said and written, both pro and con. Clearly he has been important. His policies on green space, alternative transportation, recycling, and public health have all made an undeniable impact on the city. But as far as the man himself is concerned, Bloomberg would clearly prefer to be remembered as the education mayor. The trouble with that view, of course, is that his record on improving New York’s public school system is arguably his least clear-cut success story. 

Without a doubt, there has been progress. Bloomberg takes great pride that graduation rates have increased 39 percent since 2005, and you can hardly fault him for that. But even seemingly small controversies, such as that of a $32 million city contract with the testing firm Pearson, and subsequent problems with test administration, demonstrate the complexity of the issues.

Take school construction and renovation. Back in October 1997, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall issued an alarming report about the physical conditions of New York's public schools. The schools were not just overcrowded, they were also physically falling apart. McCall detailed an impending disaster brought on by aging buildings, a lack of adequate maintenance and upkeep, and demanded quick public attention.

Starting in the Bloomberg years, the city finally began to pay attention. It’s hard to have lived in New York over the past eight years without appreciating the number of new schools that have been built, the larger schools that have been subdivided and the many, many new annexes that have been erected. Most of the renovation and new construction completed since 2005 has been aimed at catching up. New York City schools were not just physically awful, but also tremendously overcrowded. The city is still behind, but not by nearly as much.

One could point to this work as concrete steps in the right direction, which it clearly is. But as early as 2011, smack in the middle of Bloomberg’s school building boom, class sizes and waiting lists for almost all K-8 schools got worse, not better. 

The cause of the increase in class sizes might have more to do with the number of teachers than the square footage of New York City schools. The mayor’s 2011 budget called for 5 percent of all teachers to be laid-off. While massive cuts were spared by a last-minute budget deal, the result was still a decline in the number of teachers overall.

As important as school construction is, and the city still has miles to go on this front, spending for physical infrastructure cannot and should not be isolated from basic human resource calculations. Study after study has shown that class size is a crucial component to student success. Classes of 18 are simply better than classes of 33. Just look at any well-regarded prep-school website for its student-teacher ratio and you get the point.

There’s no doubt that Bloomberg deserves credit for major improvements to the physical infrastructure of New York City’s public schools. He’s spent billions on school construction. But as much as he wants to be remembered as the education mayor, thanks to a barely veiled hostility toward teachers, his legacy at best will be incomplete. No true school reform can move forward without bringing teachers in as partners. Hopefully the next mayor will learn from these last three terms and turn to the human side of reform. For truly transformative work on education, municipal workers must be seen as allies rather than obstacles.

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