Mike Bloomberg at 2019 NAACP Convention: Education Holds the Key to Our Biggest Challenges
JUL. 24, 2019
Mike Bloomberg delivered the following remarks at the 2019 NAACP Annual Convention in Detroit, MI on July 24, 2019
“Thank you, Derrick, for that kind introduction and for having me join you today.
“You should know I've actually spent a fair bit of time here in Detroit – because my foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, focuses much of our work on cities.
“We've supported the local mayor, Mayor Mike Duggan on a variety of projects, and the whole city deserves a lot of credit for writing really a remarkable comeback story. This was a city down on its luck, and it’s going in the right direction now.
“Let me begin by telling you why I am particularly honored to be here with you this morning.
“My father passed away when I was a young man. One of my oldest memories of him was when I was sitting at the kitchen table as a little boy watching him write a check to the NAACP. It wasn’t for a lot of money, we didn’t have a lot of money. It was for a small amount of money, but for our family I think it was significant.
“So I remember saying to him – and I asked my sister whether this is correct and she said yes – I said: ‘Daddy, why are we giving money to the NAACP?’ And I will never forget his answer. He explained to me that their fight was our fight as well. And discrimination against anyone threatens everyone. That's a lesson I have never forgotten, and I have tried to honor it throughout my working life.
“I didn't know it at the time, but my parents couldn't buy the house that I grew up in because the owners wouldn't sell it to Jews. So my parents arranged for their Irish lawyer to buy it, and then he re-sold it to us. We were lucky.
“But I think it’s fair to say, if we had been black that trick probably would not have worked. My mother and father understood that. And they knew that society needed to change for everyone.
“Now, I didn't know it back then, but my father's small contribution to the NAACP was a larger affirmation of what it means to be an American – with full and equal rights under the law for all.
“When I was a child, the definition of American citizenship was hotly contested.
“Our Constitution, our founding document, said that only three out of every five slaves – three-fifths – would be counted as human beings. And then we fought a war over that. Men and women died to make three-fifths whole. But the struggle, obviously, did not end there.
“When I was growing up, America was still a land of Jim Crow and ‘separate but equal.’ In 1960, as a freshman at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, I remember going down to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and seeing signs for black and white bathrooms. And I’m sure a few of you here are old enough to remember them, too.
“It was not until 100 years after the Civil War that the full promise of American citizenship began to be redeemed. And now, unfortunately, that redemption is under assault again by a President who says some of us should go back to where we came from.
“He seems to think some of us are not really true Americans.
“I say us because when the President tells even one American to go back to where he or she came from, the President is challenging the very meaning of citizenship.
“Well, together, let us be clear in our response: Mr. President, we are not going back. Not one of us.
“We have come too far on our American journey. People have fought too hard and marched too far to turn around now.
“So when the President says go back, we go forward. Always forward.
“My father told me as a little boy that we are all in this together. We still are – so I can't help but think that he would be very proud to see me here today, speaking to this organization that meant so much to him, and that remains vitally important to America.
“During my 12 years as Mayor of New York City, we worked constructively with the NAACP, but we also had our disagreements. Hazel Dukes, who I just met again backstage, will be the first to tell you that. Don’t pick a fight with Hazel, I’m just telling you. You can’t win, but that's OK.
“We always respected each other, and I respected this organization and its role. And I have never believed that people need to agree 100 percent of the time to be able to get along together and work.
“In our American democracy, we need to be able to debate and argue respectfully, and find common ground.
“Today, we have a President who believes the opposite – who acts as if he is the leader of a faction, rather than a nation.
“And he approaches every problem with a clenched fist and a hard heart, rather than an outstretched hand and an open mind.
“It's a disaster for democratic government, which requires cooperation, and a sense of common purpose, and I believe we need to do something about it.
“Now, I've never been much for party politics. You should know I have supported Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Heck, I've even been a Democrat, Republican, and independent.
“But in the last election, I spent more than $100 million to help elect Democrats to the House of Representatives. I did it because I knew we needed a Congress to act as a check on this President. The Republicans sure weren't providing that oversight.
“I'm particularly glad that we were able to help elect so many candidates of color and female candidates around the nation, like Lucy McBath from Georgia.
“Lucy's son, Jordan, was shot and killed for playing music too loudly. It is unthinkable to lose a child, but she managed to turn her grief into action.
“I've supported her and many others who have lost loved ones to gun violence by taking on the NRA – and I'm glad to say we are finally beginning to beat them.
“Since leaving office, I've also launched new efforts to fight climate change, advocate for sensible immigration reform, and protect public health against tobacco and obesity. Because while words are nice, deeds are better. And results are better yet. But in Washington, it's all talk and no action.
“Today, too many candidates on both sides of the aisle make promises without speaking hard truths about the tough issues, and the compromises and sacrifices involved in addressing them, from health care and homelessness to immigration and public safety.
“In fact, on climate change, some candidates are more likely to talk about goals for 2050 – when they'll be long out office and won't have to be held accountable for delivering actual results – instead of focusing on the concrete steps we need to take right now, when the future of our planet is at stake.
“Now, I know you'll have a number of presidential candidates coming before you today. I hope you will hold their feet to the fire, and make them offer not just grand promises, but realistic plans for achieving them.
“I know many of them, I've even supported some of them for office. I don't agree with all of their ideas, but all of the candidates would be better than President Trump. Granted, that's a low bar.
“But this morning, I'd like to focus on a seminal issue facing our country, and where, I believe, we need to demand more of the candidates. This is my message for the day, and it's an issue that President Obama called the civil rights issue of our time, and I couldn't agree with him more: public education.
“Education holds the key to so many of the major challenges we face.
“Want to reduce poverty? Education. Want to reduce crime? Education. Want to reduce homelessness? Education. Want to reduce income inequality? Education. And the list goes on.
“But for far too long, zip code and skin color have determined a child's education. That is wrong – tragically wrong. And I believe fixing it must be our top priority for our country, and for our next president because kids in Harlem and Detroit and Memphis are every bit as equal to kids in Beverly Hills and Grosse Pointe and Scarsdale, and they deserve schools and teachers that are every bit as good.
“The sad fact is that the schools doing the worst job preparing students for success are generally in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. Everyone knows that. And I've seen it as a mayor, I've seen it as a university chairman, and I've seen it as an employer.
“Now, I'm lucky enough to own a company that has some 20,000 employees, and I can just tell you that one of the biggest challenges facing companies like mine is finding people with the skills we need to fill positions.
“Nationwide, there are some 700,000 job openings in technology that employers can't fill, and in other industries there are millions of open jobs of all types. In fact, there are more open jobs in America than there are people on unemployment.
“Just think about that: we have the jobs, but too many of our kids are getting diplomas that are virtually meaningless in the real world instead of the skills employers need. Shame on us.
“Our schools are not preparing students for the tests that they will face in the job market, and the tests that they are taking in school often set the bar far too low.
“Now I know testing these days isn't popular. But if we shield our children from taking tests that measure essential skills, three bad things happen. Number one: teachers can't possibly know if students are on track. Number two: parents don't know if they're falling behind. And number three: students don't acquire the kind of knowledge, and discipline, and experience they will need to pass tests in the real world. And if they don’t pass tests in the real world, they don't get the job.
“That is the hard truth, and every business leader will tell you that, but too many politicians are afraid to say it.
“One of the main reasons I first decided to run for mayor back in 2001 was that I was tired of hearing the excuses for why New York City schools performed so badly. Over my 12 years in office, I can't say that we accomplished everything we wanted to, but we took a system that was riddled with drop-out factories and we turned it upside down.
“We closed schools that had been failing mostly minority communities for decades, and we opened 650 new schools in their place that outperformed the old schools by wide margins.
“We also lengthened the school day. We increased Advanced Placement courses. We reformed teacher tenure. And we created progress reports for every school so parents and principals and teachers can all be held accountable.
“In the end, we cut the achievement gap between black and Latino students on the one hand, and white and Asian students on the other, by more than 20 percent.
“And we did this even as we raised and increased graduation rates among black and Latino students by 50 percent, making them more proficient in the skills they needed to succeed in college and careers.
“We made a big difference in the lives of young people that this organization fights for not simply by making promises or spending more money, but by facing hard truths and putting the needs of students first.
“Now it’s true, education in our country is mostly a state and local issue. But we couldn't have asked for better partners in Washington than President Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan.
“Their $4.5 billion Race to the Top program incentivized kids and incentivized schools and pushed New York into setting higher standards using data to hold teachers and principals accountable, turning around low performing schools, supporting the creation of charter schools, and it worked.
“When I came into office, listen to this – this is really all you need to know about what we did – when I came into office none of the top 25 elementary and middle schools in New York State were in New York City. Not one in New York City.
“When we left office 12 years later, 22 out of the top 25 elementary and middle schools were in New York City. So we went from having zero percent of the best schools in the state to having 90 percent of them. And many of those schools served largely black and Latino students.
“No one would have believed that city schools could out-compete suburban schools, and in virtually no place in this country do they. But we did it in New York, and it was a great credit to the teachers, principals, and students in New York City.
“Some of the top-performing schools in New York City are public charter schools. Charters around the country often receive less money than traditional public schools, but in New York, at least, they often performed at the very highest levels. And that's why we created 173 of them, to go along with the hundreds of non-charter public schools we created.
“Now that is not to say that charter schools are the end-all and be-all. Some states have done a poor job holding charters accountable for their performance. One of the weakest charter laws is here in Michigan, because conservatives – including Betsy DeVos – have allowed failing charter schools to continue to operate. And that is wrong and it hurts children, and we should not tolerate it. So I share the NAACP's criticism of these practices, but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.
“In New York, we showed that when charters are granted carefully, and overseen rigorously, the results can be incredibly impressive among millions of kids, giving them the opportunity to succeed in life and pursue their dreams. And that model can work nationally.
“Unfortunately, however, the political discussion in America around education has shifted from when President Obama was leading it. Today, most Democrats running for President are avoiding talking about President Obama, and they are also avoiding talking about charter schools, or actually opposing them.
“They want to take options away from our kids, and I don’t think we should do that. You can’t let them do that.
“So when you hear a candidate talk about education as a civil rights issue, ask yourself: are they speaking hard truths, like President Obama did? Or just politically-convenient truths, like increasing spending?
“Now, don't get me wrong, I’m all for raising teacher salaries. And when I was mayor, we raised teachers’ salaries in New York City a lot – by 42 percent. That’s probably more than any other large jurisdiction in the country. And we more than doubled the education budget in New York City.
“Around the country, the low salaries that many teachers are paid are a disgrace – and I think we should fix it.
“I've joined with AFT President Randi Weingarten to urge state legislators to do that. But let's face it, the problem in our schools isn't just money. The hard truth is it's also a lack of accountability. It's a lack of quality school options. It's low standards and low expectations.
“My foundation and I are investing in places that are committed to raising standards and improving achievement levels, and we're seeing some encouraging results. For example, Denver has nearly closed the gap in tests scores with the rest of the state.
“They are proving, just like New York did, that city students can perform at the same level – or higher – as their more affluent neighbors.
“We've also enlisted more than 100 colleges into something we call the American Talent Initiative. Each of these colleges has committed to enrolling and graduating more low-income, high-achieving students. And we've created a program called CollegePoint that helps those same students with the application and financial aid process.
“I was able to attend Johns Hopkins University by taking out loans and working my way through school. I recently gave that university a gift from my foundation that is entirely for financial aid so that no student going to Johns Hopkins will ever be turned away for cost.
“I want to be sure that every student who applies there has the same chance that I did – no matter what their family income is, or where their neighborhood was.
“I've come a long way from that first check my father wrote to the NAACP, but his principles remain the same ones I've always carried with me: equal rights, equal justice, and equal opportunity for all.
“Now, of course, not every student wants to go to college, you’re saying. And we are working with a number of cities and states to improve career and technical education for those students. And for those students we created 46 vocational schools in New York City, and one of them prepares students for careers in tech and has become a global model. It didn't hurt that President Obama was so impressed that he came and visited the school.
“Whether young people choose a blue collar or white collar profession, they need skills – not only in reading and writing and math, but also the soft skills that every employer values like analyzing problems, working with others, being held accountable, dealing with situations that they don't agree with your colleagues, and developing a strong work ethic because doing the bare minimum in this day and age is a sure way to lose your job. The world is just much too competitive for that.
“Finally, as critically important as good schools are, I think everyone here would agree that the most important teachers in a young child's life are the parents and family. That's why one of the first steps I took as mayor was creating a new full-time job in each school in New York City called the ‘parent coordinator.’
“The parent coordinator’s job was to make sure that parents had the information and resources they needed to support their children. So when Derrick Johnson told us that the NAACP was developing a new initiative to help parents help their children in school, we were immediately interested, and our team at Bloomberg Philanthropies will be supporting that program with a grant.
“The more we can do to help parents, the better off their children – and our whole country – will be. But just because we’re helping parents doesn’t mean we should let politicians off the hook.
“Over the last decade or so, the progress that we've made as a country has happened in large part because African-American leaders – from the White House to neighborhood churches – have joined with mayors to say enough is enough.
“But now, unfortunately that progress is stalling. If Justice Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King could see how far we still have to go 65 years after Brown vs. the Board of Education they would be shocked and shake their heads in disbelief – but I don’t think they would have given up. I think they would have worked harder than ever, and that is what we must do.
“So today, I urge you: keep up the fight.
“This organization, I noticed, was started in the year 1909. That was the year my mother was born, and so I want to make sure that her legacy and the legacy of this organization goes on.
“Don’t let the candidates who come before you this morning make big promises without any explanation of how they are going to pay for it or how it’s going to work or how they would get it through Congress. That’s all bull.
“People say dramatically raising achievement levels can’t be done. We’ve shown in New York they can. That’s just total bull and you shouldn’t stand for it.
“And every place in America can do that, for every group. And if our leaders face the hard truths and have the courage to act on them, this country is going to continue to be the place where people go when they vote with their feet.
“That’s the only way we're going to make real progress and fulfill the true promise of equal opportunity for all.
“The last Democratic president understood that, and it's up to all of us to make sure the next one does, too.
“So thank you for leading the way. And if my father were alive to see this, I know he'd say a big thank you to you as well for making America a more equal and just place for everyone.
“We ain’t where we want to be, but we’re going in the right direction. And if you hold people’s feet to the fire and demand results, we can get there.
“Thank you, and God bless.”
Founder of Independence USA PAC, Founder of Everytown for Gun Safety, Co-founder of the Partnership for a New American Economy, and Co-chair of Building America's Future
IN MIKE'S WORDS
We believe that tomorrow can be better than today. And we know that it’s up to us to make it so.