In Bloomberg's New Education Push, a High-Stakes Test of His Big Philanthropy

 photo: Leena Robinson/shutterstock

photo: Leena Robinson/shutterstock

Michael Bloomberg recently pledged $375 million over the next five years to improve education in the United States. He laid out his plans during a speech he made at the New York Times Higher Ed Leaders forum. The strategies he outlined sound a lot like a greatest hits list from his tenure as New York City’s mayor.

These days, Bloomberg may be best known for his philanthropy on climate change and global health, along with his push for gun safety. But a hallmark of his three mayoral terms were his often controversial efforts to improve New York City's vast public school system. Now, a half-decade after leaving City Hall, Bloomberg is moving to put education front and center in his philanthropy, after years of smaller-scale work by his foundation in this space. "Education has always been a passion for me," he said in his recent remarks. 

This is a risky move in some ways. While the $375 million commitment is a hefty sum, there are a lot of deep-pocketed funders working on education and historically, a ton of money has poured into the space with only modest results. Will Bloomberg's big commitment be any different?

As we've often written, Bloomberg has been a highly effective philanthropist because he's focused on large, solvable problems—like curbing deaths from smoking and traffic accidents in developing countries, or shuttering coal-fired power plants. We've joked that Bloomberg is the "Spock" of philanthropy because he tends to avoid sexy issues and instead follows the data, doubling down on results-driven work in less glamorous areas. Taking on education, a legendary graveyard for ambitious donors, might seem like a departure from that approach. 

That's not how Bloomberg sees it, though. Citing his experiences as mayor, he said in his speech that reformers know how to make real gains on education. He said that his foundation's efforts in this area will "focus on what works, based on what the data tells us."

While there haven’t been too many concrete details released on how Bloomberg Philanthropies plans to deploy the $375 million, Bloomberg outlined some general principles during his talk.

First, education is a local issue. Any progress made will be made on the local level, so investments should flow to state, city and district work, Bloomberg said. 

This approach is in line with a growing local focus among big givers in the education space. Gates recently rebooted its strategy to focus on networks of schools with local leadership. There are also prominent donors taking on education in the cities and states where they live—think the Lundquists in Los Angeles and Charles Butt in Texas.

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Bloomberg's new education initiative comes at a time when philanthropists are edging away from top-down approaches that have drawn fire. As mayor, Bloomberg was strongly criticized for heavy-handed reform efforts that opponents argued were dismissive of key stakeholders, including teachers and parents. It will be interesting to see how his new philanthropic efforts on education will unfold and be perceived. 

Second, Bloomberg said that education is political, so his plans will include advocacy efforts. As a private individual, he donates to the political campaigns of candidates who champion his views on education.

Bloomberg is far from the only donor using both philanthropic and political giving to achieve change. The Walton family and Eli Broad, along with many other charter school advocates, are known for their tendency to use both levers to spread their ideas. The result has been a growing flow of campaign donations that seek to influence education policies. 

The third idea Bloomberg highlighted in speech—and the one he spent the most time on—was bolstering college and career readiness. The education reform community has hobbled both college preparation and career readiness by setting up a false choice between the two, Bloomberg said during his remarks. The result is that neither is done well, he said.

Fewer than half of students who enter college graduate within four years. In six years, that percentage jumps to 60 percent. Bloomberg cited both numbers as proof that high schools are not doing enough to prepare students to succeed in college. He argued that more needs to be done to prepare kids who want to move on to higher education, while giving kids who don’t viable options.

"Around the country, vocational schools and programs have been eliminated, and many of those that survived are still trapped in the 1960s and 1970s, and they are often stigmatized as more of a dumping ground than a learning lab,” he said.

Bloomberg cited the success of technical schools he opened while in office as proof of concept for his vision. “One of the reasons we were able to cut the drop-out rate in half was by finding new ways to keep students engaged—including by creating schools that offered education and skill-training in particular industries,” he said.

While mayor, Bloomberg opened a school in collaboration with IBM, an energy and tech high school in partnership with the National Grid, and a health, education and research high school with the city’s community college system and local medical center.

Even when students complete college, the skills they learn are mismatched with what employers are seeking, Bloomberg observed. The result is bad for both employers and college graduates. To fix this, Bloomberg intends to support partnerships between high schools and the local business community.

He cited programs like Career Wise in Denver, Youth Force in New Orleans and Career Pathways in Delaware. In all three programs, employers provide education and skill development. The relationship benefits businesses, which gain a local talent pipeline.

The students get work experience, along with community college credit they earn while in high school. They can continue into an associate or bachelor's program, or earn a job certification. When they complete the program, they can interview for full-time positions.

Another mismatch Bloomberg seeks to fix is the number of high-achieving, low-income students who don’t end up at schools that match their performance and abilities. Bloomberg Philanthropies seems to taking the most action on this idea at present. To solve the problem, the funder launched two initiatives—one to pair high-achieving, low-income students with college counselors and a second to get top colleges to admit more of those students.

College Point, the first initiative, has already matched 40,000 students with college counselors through texting, video chat, phone calls and emails. The plan is to reach half of the country’s high-performing, low-income high school students by 2020. The second initiative, the American Talent Initiative, has signed up 100 top colleges and universities. They’ve agreed to increase the number of low-income, high-achieving kids they accept and graduate by 50,000 by 2025.

Overall, a lot of the ideas Bloomberg talked about in laying out his education strategy are not new. Many have been rallying points for ed reformers and philanthropists for years. In some cases, they’re ideas that donors are moving away from because they haven’t seen the results they hoped for. 

Bloomberg stressed accountability during his talk. He wants states and districts to publish year-by-year goals and be held accountable to the public for meeting them. He wants to see higher standards for students, higher pay for teachers tied to higher standards, giving principals room to hire, train and manage their staffs, make sure it's possible to remove teachers who don’t meet standards even after mentorship, and more choice for parents, including charter schools.

The emphasis on pay-for-performance for teachers, the ability to fire them when they don’t meet standards and the intention to give parents more choice through more charter schools—a tactic that also bypasses teachers unions, making it easier to fire teachers—are goals that would be familiar to ed reformers a decade ago.

They’re also tactics that didn’t bring the widespread success that that reformers hoped for. Some districts managed to implement pay for performance for teachers coupled with letting unsuccessful teachers go—usually at a steep political price. Districts that made those changes, like D.C.’s public schools, report positive findings, but data is scarce and results are far from certain.

The most interesting takeaway from Bloomberg’s speech is the resemblance of his new education plans to the ideas he championed as mayor. The ideas weren’t without controversy, but he was a publicly elected official when he led these reforms. Now, because of his private fortune, Bloomberg’s favorite reforms could be coming to a state near you.

The situation illustrates the uneasy dynamic between philanthropy and democracy. On the one hand, private individuals and philanthropic institutions using their wealth for the public good is a positive thing. On the other hand, there's something inherently undemocratic about the concentration of so much power in the hands of one person, a person who can’t be voted out of office if their ideas are unpopular.

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