As Mr Bloomberg campaigned for mayor in 2001, it was clear that New York’s school board was failing its 1.1m students. The board, removed from the city’s budget process, had little control over school finances. The consequences were dire. Many high schools were losing more than half their students before graduation. Mr Bloomberg promised change.
With the central school-board disbanded, the mayor got to work. He appointed as his education “chancellor” Joel Klein, a former top trust-buster at the federal Department of Justice. Together, they dissolved the city’s 32 school districts and replaced them with ten regions. They chose a uniform curriculum for reading, writing and maths. And they began to close large high schools and open small ones in their place. Mr Bloomberg set up 15 small high schools in 2002, and got money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003 to help open 169 more.
Two years after seizing control, Messrs Bloomberg and Klein began a push to give more power to certain schools. Management scholars such as William Ouchi, of the University of California, Los Angeles, argued that decentralisation had saved American businesses; it could save schools too. In 2004, New York began opening schools where principals have more control over everything from budgets to staffing. If a principal does not meet the mayor’s targets, he can be fired. Last spring, 322 principals, a fifth of the total, joined this “empowerment” programme.