Now that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has left office, speculation is rife about his legacy, particularly on education, a signature issue during his three-term mayoralty. But experts searching for clues as to the administration’s impact on education in test scores, dropout numbers, graduation rates and countless other measures are missing the real story. Although New York under Bloomberg became the nation’s most data-driven education department, his lasting effects are not numbers but people: specifically, a cadre of student activists who are the most fearless and effective voices for American educational equity since the postwar desegregation fight.
Since Bloomberg took office in 2002, a plethora of New York City youth-led movements have coalesced in direct opposition to some of the administration’s signature initiatives, such as closing failing schools, encouraging the growth of charters and slashing budgets. Campaigns by student-led groups like Urban Youth Collaborative, the Dignity in Schools Campaign and the Respect for All coalition have achieved many victories, including the preservation of free student subway cards, the rewriting of the citywide school discipline code to limit suspensions and the adoption and implementation of Chancellor’s Regulation A-832, an anti-bullying policy. While many of these groups include parents and adult advocates, students set priorities, make public statements, lead rallies and serve as the face of the struggle.
Youth organizing is now growing in urban districts where New York City Department of Education (DOE) alumni have migrated, taking Bloomberg’s policies — and controversies — with them. For example, Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools began under Jean-Claude Brizard, formerly an instructional superintendent in New York City’s Region 8. The group has organized a series of boycotts and walkouts protesting school closings in majority-black and -Latino neighborhoods and Chicago’s strong emphasis on standardized testing. Brizard, a former Rochester City Schools superintendent and New York City public school teacher who was tapped by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to carry out an educational-reform agenda modeled on New York City’s, briefly served as Chicago Schools CEO before he resigned after the city’s first teacher strike in 25 years, a protest whose longevity and effectiveness was bolstered by student and parent support. In November the Newark Student Union in New Jersey initiated a boycott to demand increased funding and opportunities for local governance from Superintendent Cami Anderson, a former superintendent for the New York City DOE. A few days later, students at three high schools in New Orleans organized their own walkouts to protest zero-tolerance discipline policies promoted by former head of New Orleans public schools and current Louisiana schools superintendent John White, a former New York City DOE deputy chancellor.
As with any mass movement, unsuccessful actions by student organizers have outnumbered successful ones. In 2012, for example, students at Manhattan Theater Lab held a talent show at a Panel for Education Policy (PEP) meeting to convince officials that their school should remain open despite receiving a series of failing grades on the city’s annual report cards, another DOE innovation. Students argued that the state test scores used to make the decision told an incomplete story. The PEP voted to close the school anyway. Also that year, the Chicago School Board voted to move forward with closing schools labeled failing on the basis of low student test scores, despite a highly publicized series of demonstrations organized by hundreds of Chicago-area students, who argued that the solution to fixing these community institutions was to invest in them, not to give up on them.
No matter how infrequent their victories, however, student-led groups that formed specifically to oppose Bloomberg-style reforms have earned a powerful voice in nationwide policy conversations. Their public actions have received significant media coverage and are supported by prominent elected officials. One notable official is New York’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio. In June 2013, during the height of the mayoral campaign, candidate de Blasio co-authored a letter with the Urban Youth Collaborative asking the chancellor of the New York City DOE, Dennis Walcott, to assess student suspension measures in the city schools. Mayoral candidates in Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C., are facing questioning from students at public forums on education. The alignment of organized youth-led coalitions and individuals with educational-equity concerns may become an important factor in mayoral elections in those cities and others, including New Orleans and Providence, R.I., in 2014.
Youth-led educational activism is not unique to the last decade. In fact, the desegregation of America’s schools in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s — arguably the most profound educational reform of the 20th century — was shouldered almost entirely by students. What is new, however, is the level of creativity, effectiveness, commitment and leadership among today’s students. Perhaps this is because, for many young people, the struggle feels so personal: The education-reform movement is based on using test scores to label students, educators and schools as failures. Students are unwilling to give up on themselves and their communities and are wary of corporate solutions created by market-driven tactics. Furthermore, they are sick of being denied resources and then being blamed for the consequences. This combination of factors fuels the anger and urgency underlying the growing movement for educational equity.
Bloomberg has sought to export his educational reforms to urban centers across the U.S. For example, The New York Times recently reported that he is forming a consulting company dedicated to helping other cities replicate New York’s policies. Additionally, he will undoubtedly continue his habit of supporting reforms through donations and public statements, and he will most likely continue to be a vocal — and at times abrasive — critic of those whose views he does not share.
Indeed, Bloomberg’s record suggests he has little tolerance for alternative points of view. Most notably, the dissolution of school boards in favor of the ineffective Community Education Council and the rubber-stamp PEP indicates a lack of faith in the public’s ability to govern their own education systems. Other choices, like his administration’s emphasis on standardized testing, which leaves little room for teachers to build students’ skills as advocates and critical thinkers, could have compromised young people’s capacity for effective organizing. Instead, it is precisely these policies that led to the politicization of the nation’s youth.
While the creation of a student-led movement calling for greater investment in our public schools — and, by extension, communities of color — was not part of the mayor’s grand plan, it will certainly have positive effects on the future of American education. After all, students — not parents, advocates or elected officials — are the clients of the school system. It is only right that their voices be heard.