How Bloomberg's Big Investment in Mayors May Shape Education Reform, and More

Mayoral control remains a controversial issue in education, but some see it as a major boon for reform efforts in cities. Big funders like the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations have all invested in promoting mayoral control as it aligns nicely with their agendas supporting charter schools and other reforms.

But the issue of mayoral control extends beyond schools. New York City is one of those places where the mayor now enjoys broader powers in areas like housing, healthcare and education as a result of legislation that empowered that office. Faced with persistent social challenges in urban areas around the country, legislatures are giving mayors a much wider array of tools—and some foundations are following suit with resources to support key initiatives that these newly empowered mayors are pursuing.

No foundation is more keenly interested in turbo-charging mayors than Bloomberg Philanthropies—bankrolled, of course, by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who ushered in a new era of mayoral power during his three terms in New York's City Hall, most notably in education, winning control over the schools in 2002. 

With a recent $32 million gift to Harvard University, Bloomberg Philanthropies now aims to provide executive training to 300 mayors and 400 mayoral aides over the next four years. A new Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative will be housed in both the business and government schools, and will pull in “urban experts” alongside faculty from both schools. The initiative will offer customized curriculum that is mostly delivered online with periodic meetings in New York for some mayors and key aides. It will also fund internships in mayoral offices, research on innovative city government strategies, and a mentoring program to pair successful mayors with newer ones.

What does any of this have to do with schools and education philanthropy? A lot, actually. Top education reform funders have long concentrated their efforts in places where control over policy decisions is more centralized, making gains both more likely and more durable. Related to this, funders have worked to dramatically expand charter schools in a handful of high-poverty cities, as opposed to taking a broader approach to scaling this model. 

Overall, in the push for education reform, mayors have become ever more critical figures, and Bloomberg wants them to be as well equipped as they can be to handle this and other challenges. Speaking of those other challenges, we've also reported on how more funders are looking at cities as key venues for addressing inequity through plans for economic development, job creation, and career readiness. Cities are also front and center in regard to growing work around race and policing, as well as criminal justice reform. And just the other day we wrote about a major new foundation initiative to develop better shared spaces in cities as a way to foster more equity. Meanwhile, some climate funders see cities as an all-important focal point for efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Almost wherever you look, the top priorities of major funders intersect with the capacities of urban government and the mayors who lead them. In this sense, Bloomberg's investment in boosting mayors is likely to help along any number of initiatives by philanthropy. 

But back to education: While there’s competing research on the merits and demerits of mayoral control when it comes to improving schools, one thing is certain: These officials often matter a lot in education no matter how much power they wield. And no funder is getting behind them like Michael Bloomberg.