Mayor Michael Bloomberg has sought during his three terms to make the city's sprawling public school system a showcase for get-tough policies such as closing schools deemed to be failing and using student test scores to measure teacher effectiveness.
Educators around the country are now watching this year's race to succeed Bloomberg because several candidates say they would overturn those policies if elected.
"The city carries extra weight in national debates," said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College at Columbia University. "It is seen by many national school reformers as among the leaders in pursuing a particular set of reform strategies."
With 1.1 million pupils and a $24 billion annual budget, New York City's public school system is by far the largest in the nation. And Bloomberg has left his mark on it.
Since winning mayoral control of schools from the state Legislature in 2002, Bloomberg has closed more than 140 struggling schools — often over neighborhood protests — and replaced them with hundreds of new schools.
He raised teachers' salaries but fought their union over merit pay for top teachers and the use of standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.
He trumpeted rising achievement on the statewide standardized tests, though those claims were called into question after 2010 when officials said scores had been inflated across the state because the tests had become too easy to pass.
Critics including the United Federation of Teachers and several members of the crowded field of mayoral candidates say Bloomberg's policies have hurt the schools.
"This mayor told us to judge him on his education policies," said Zakiyah Ansari, a parent activist who moderated a mayoral debate about education issues last week. "Well, it has been a failure."
The five candidates who attended the debate were all more or less critical of Bloomberg education policies such as closing schools and replacing them with new schools.
"Instead of giving up on those schools, we need to turn those schools around," former City Comptroller William Thompson said.
Current Comptroller John Liu agreed: "It's not the schools that have failed. It's the administration and the Department of Education who have failed these schools."
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio charged that "the status quo in education in this city is unacceptable. It will not sustain us for the future."
Former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, attending his first mayoral debate, was less critical of Bloomberg but went along with the crowd in his answer to a question about whether a particular charter school operator has been given special treatment.