Clutching at Bloomberg

Five years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg won a historic battle for Mayoral control of New York City’s schools, the results have been mixed.

The four-year graduation rate is increasing, but still hovers near 50 percent; reported crimes at public schools are on the rise; and a recent reorganization of the bus system left preteen students throughout the city stranded in the snow.

But while some Democrats are using the situation as a rare occasion to criticize the Bloomberg administration over his education agenda, City Comptroller Bill Thompson—a prospective candidate for Mayor in 2009—is staking a claim to it.

Referring in an interview to his previous job as president of the now-defunct New York City Board of Education, Mr. Thompson said, “I’m proud of the work I did there. The things that have allowed for Mayoral control are the things that we did there. Mayoral control was a half-step after that.”

Mr. Thompson’s chest-thumping over Mayoral control comes at precisely the moment that a number of prominent Democratic elected officials, the teachers’ union and—according to at least one poll—the public have begun to rethink the wisdom of putting the nation’s largest school district into the hands of one man. The provision is up for renewal in 2009, virtually guaranteeing that school control will be a contentious issue in the next election.

As an aide to one of Mr. Thompson’s likely opponents in the 2009 Mayoral race put it: “The road to City Hall leads through the classroom.”

There are a couple of reasonable explanations for Mr. Thompson’s behavior. One is simply that everyone who has bet against Mr. Bloomberg in recent years has lost. Despite a number of potentially damaging missteps—the school bussing problem; the defense of an order, later rescinded, to ticket cars trapped on the street by snowstorms; his insistence that the C.E.O. of Con Ed deserved “a thank-you” after a massive, days-long blackout—the Mayor’s poll numbers remain in the stratosphere. (The most recent Quinnipiac survey had his overall approval rating at 73 percent.)

The simple calculation, then, is that if you’re interested in running for something citywide, it’s better to be with Michael Bloomberg than against him.

Another reason that Mr. Thompson might choose to embrace the Bloomberg agenda on school control is that it gives him a chance to turn a potential weakness—one that goes to the very core of who he is—into a strength.

His tenure at the Board of Education—he spent five years there as president—is a central element in his biography.

If he chooses to play it down, he runs the risk that opponents will paint him as a recalcitrant former member of an ossified, vestigial organization that former Mayor Rudy Giuliani wanted to “blow up” and Mr. Bloomberg finally managed, with public backing, to destroy.

If, on the other hand, he has anything to say about it, the public will look at his time on the Board of Ed and see him as a fearless agent of necessary change.

“The one thing that I refused to do is accept the status quo,” he said in the interview. “If people want to try and point fingers, then point fingers at the change that was done: We ended decentralization, something that existed for decades.”

Mr. Thompson also took credit for ending principal tenure, improving school safety by increasing police involvement, “creating focus” on literacy and math, and bolstering the presence of the arts and science in school curriculums.

“If people want to point fingers, go point fingers,” he continued. “At the same point, if it is also being the beneficiary afterward of Mayoral control, I’d appreciate a thank-you then.” Clutching at Bloomberg