Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for the education department in the Bloomberg era, thinks of himself as part of a revolution in public education.

We were “dismantling a system that didn’t work and building new stuff,” he said. The slate of reforms enacted under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg included swelling New York City’s charter school sector and creating hundreds of new, small schools. The changes were not always popular — particularly with the city’s powerful teachers union — but they certainly made a splash.

Four years after Bloomberg left office and six years after Nadelstern left the Department of Education, the deputy chancellor-turned-professor says his administration didn’t go far enough. Sitting in his office at Teachers College, Nadelstern said if he could do it again, he’d try something even more radical: unzoning the entire city.

Under Bloomberg, Nadelstern says, the Department of Education catered to the middle class, which he considers a critical mistake. As they went about remaking the school system, the department preserved — and in some cases expanded — parts of the system that worked well for middle-class families, such as zoned schools in well-off neighborhoods and screened schools citywide.

Nadelstern’s solution: “Get rid of it.” He wants to rid the system of zone lines that sort students into elementary schools and screened and specialized schools that pick students based on their test scores, grades and interviews.

The idea — while seemingly far-fetched — puts the former Bloomberg administrator into conversation with today’s integration advocates. Nadelstern sees this plan as a mechanism for improving racial and economic diversity in the city’s schools. Though more school choice hasn’t always led to desegregation, Nadelstern says his more radical approach could help diversify and improve struggling schools.

We talked to Nadelstern about his big idea, why school principals should have more power, and how the current Department of Education is reversing many of his team’s initiatives.

The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What are you most proud of from your time at the DOE?

I’m proud of the autonomy zone … In almost every school district in the country, you’ve got a kind of command-and-control paramilitary structure … The superintendent to the principal to the teachers to the kids. And here, we tried to come up with a structure where the school was at the top of the pyramid. And the rest of us were there to support the work of principals and teachers with kids in classrooms. So the decision-making was pushed as far toward the schools as we possibly could. We eliminated superintendents, the network leaders [who supported groups of schools] worked for principals — they didn’t work for us. They were evaluated on the basis of how well the principals thought they were supporting them and whether or not the schools in their charge were showing growth. Now it’s kind of hard to see how schools [and superintendents] are evaluated.

Is there anything you regret from your time at the DOE?

Yes. I’ve got a major regret. I thought, primarily because of the experience I had [as founding principal of] International High School, that if you worked with principals and demonstrated that by sharing authority you became more influential, that they would internalize that lesson and share their authority with teachers, principals and the upper-grades kids. I was never explicit. I just thought it would happen.

I modeled it and I thought by doing that, they would internalize it, but they didn’t. They jealously hoarded their newfound authority and that made it a big mistake.

What exactly would it have looked like in a perfect world, if it had trickled down?

Well, I’ll tell you what it looked like at International High School, because that was the model that I had in my head. Teachers hired other teachers, they supported them, they evaluated them. There was a lot of peer review going on and that made the important decisions around continuation of service during probation, around tenure, around evaluation after tenure.

I thought having a faculty govern the school was important because if you give teachers agency, they will do everything they can to make sure kids succeed. In an urban area like New York, that’s the only way you’re going to get teachers to work hard enough to be successful. You can’t pay them enough, you can’t cajole them enough, you can’t scare them enough. You just give them more ownership of effort and then they will do it.

What do you think about the way that the high school admissions system unfolded?

You know, we made progress. Prior to Klein and Bloomberg, there were too many vested interests that could get kids into particular schools, outside the structure of whatever the process was. Local politicians could call a superintendent and say, “I’d like to get this particular kid into that school.” The supes would make it happen.

Bloomberg/Klein really got rid of that level of corruption … So the politicians hated us because they lost enormous patronage, which they had always exercised in the school system. That was prevalent when I started as a teacher and even as a superintendent. You knew if the local state senator or congressman called, that since they had the purse strings, you’d have to do what they asked you to do. So under Bloomberg/Klein, that went out the window.

What still needs to change?

What I would do is unzone the whole city. It’s problematic because the quality of students’ education in New York is directly related to which neighborhood they live in, which directly relates to socioeconomic status, and you’ve got parents paying three-and-a-half million dollars for a co-op on the Upper West Side so that they can send their kid to P.S. 199. And if there’s a lottery at that school and kids from the Bronx can apply, and the kid from across the street has to go to P.S. 191, six blocks away, the parents are going to get pissed off.

Did you propose this at the time?

Yeah, that was one [idea], but they didn’t buy it. They believed in doing everything to keep the middle class.

What Joel and Bloomberg were afraid of was turning New York into Atlanta, having the white students enroll elsewhere, and I think you risk that and unzone the whole city. I don’t think you do it tomorrow. I don’t think you say, “OK, today we did it this way, tomorrow we’re going to unzone the whole city.” I think the way you do it is you find three districts — one in the South Bronx, one in Central Brooklyn and District 1 on the Lower East Side — and you unzone those three districts. A kid in that district can apply to any school in that district. And then elementary, middle school and high school. And then you bring other districts into it, and pretty soon you allow kids to apply for schools out of the district. And it would take about three years before you got to the point where any kid could apply into any school in the city. Before most people knew what was going on, that would be the system. Any kid could apply to any school and you admit strictly on the basis of lottery.

Is that for diversity reasons?

Yeah, because a kid who lives on St. Ann’s Avenue has very few choices in the Bronx. Kids in parts of Brooklyn, Central Brooklyn have very few choices. Now, charter schools have helped, they’ve helped in Harlem and a few other neighborhoods. But it’s not enough. You really ought to admit in every school the way charter schools have been, and any kid anywhere ought to be able to apply.

And the city ought to assume the responsibility at least for kids though middle school of getting the kids to that school. It’s a reasonable expenditure. It would be expensive, but it would be … an important thing.

Doesn’t the high school admissions system show us that we need to do more than just unzone schools? High schools are unzoned now, but we’ve created this system of screens on screens.

Yeah, so [high school] really isn’t unzoned because what schools did to protect against unzoning is they took advantage of, at first it was called education option programs, and now it’s called limited unscreened programs or screened programs. You’ve got to get rid of all of that stuff.

Get rid of all of it. Then you would unzone the city. There would be no way for a school to say, “I’ve got this special program and we only need students who score off the charts on English tests.” Remember, admission to my school, [International High School], was kids failed an English test to get into my school. That was the admissions [method]. In a city where the kids who are succeeding are largely white, largely Asian, largely female, you’ve got to give African-American and Latino males an option to go somewhere other than the school closest to their homes, starting in kindergarten.

I’m curious what you see as your role in this. During the Bloomberg years we saw an increase in the share of screened schools; we saw the creation of limited unscreened schools.

I saw my job then as protecting the new schools we had opened for two years. And I did. I ensured that new schools in their first two years didn’t have to serve the full range of kids in the community because they weren’t staffed enough, they didn’t have big enough budgets to provide the full range of services. That proved controversial … but I think it was important for those schools to get off to a good footing. In year three, they had to take anybody, offer every level of ELL education, special ed education, all the specialized programs for kids. In the first two years, we gave them an opportunity to grow and build the resources they needed.

One of the ways we were able to protect them is by creating a “limited unscreened” designation. But remember, over a very short period we closed 140 schools and opened over 500 new small schools. And it only made sense to nurture those schools at the beginning. Now we’re not doing that. We’re not opening 500 new schools a year, or over three years, or at all. And so we’ve now grown into a different period, where I think every school ought to be unscreened and any kid in the city, anywhere in the city, ought to be able to apply to any school.

Has that happened anywhere else? Could this be the next big experiment?

None of this has happened anywhere. New York would have to show the rest of the country how to do it.

Doesn’t school choice inherently create competition and an incentive for principals to bend the rules and to recruit certain students?

I wouldn’t do that. Not even for basketball. I wouldn’t let them recruit.

So you would get rid of high school fairs? How would families find out about schools?

The high school fairs are ridiculous. And so you’d set up some other way to make parents aware of what the opportunities are. You’d train guidance counselors to do it. You’d have to go beyond that.

Does this admissions conversation at all affect your evaluation of the small schools movement?

No. Although I do think school is not forever. And I think small schools, like large schools, if they stop performing and serving kids, ought to disappear and we ought to give other people a chance to do a better job.

We’re nearing a three-year deadline on the Renewal School program. Do you have thoughts about how well it’s working?

I’ll sum it up by saying this: Failed schools never reinvent themselves. Period. There’s no data that says they do. The idea essentially is part of the age-old central office practice of rewarding failure and penalizing success. Oh, you’re not doing well? We’ll give you a lot of money. You are doing well, we’re not going to give you that. They’d do much better to reverse that and close those schools. You can’t ask the people who caused the failure in the first place to come up with a better idea. You can find other people to come up with a better idea. But you can’t ask the same people responsible for the failure to come up with a better idea and give them more money. They don’t have better ideas — that’s why they’re failing.

Do you see unzoning schools as the school improvement strategy for struggling ones?

Well, that’s part of it. And the other part of it is … that if you don’t attract kids, you don’t exist. So it’s a way of closing schools without saying you’re going to close the school. You can’t attract more than X number of kids, you can’t be a viable school.

How can you say, “If you don’t attract kids, you won’t stay open” and expect principals not to recruit, though?

Because the way to attract kids isn’t to make false promises to kids at a fair or go to their junior high schools and say, “Come to me, I’ve got a swimming pool,” whether you’ve got one or not. The way to recruit kids and influence parents to send their kids to you is demonstrate how well students do at your school … Part of the job is helping them think about it differently.

But you’re always going to be rewarded for attracting the best students, right?

No. In a value-add system, where what you’re looking at isn’t how well kids do but what the distance is between where kids were when they came in versus where they are a year later, one of the things we discovered were the specialized schools had the hardest time showing progress. So I think after awhile, we decided to compare specialized schools with other specialized schools and we guaranteed that they would get at least a B.

You created more specialized schools, right?

Bloomberg created more specialized schools. He and Joel thought that it was part of their job to retain the middle class. I think it’s useful to retain the middle class, but that shouldn’t be the driving component of what you do. If the middle class stays, terrific. But I don’t think you create schools that segregate the middle class as a way of retaining the middle class. It doesn’t make sense.

With the unzoning, obviously you’d get pushback from parents who say, “My kid is brilliant. They need to be among other brilliant children.”

No, they need to be among all children because that reflects life. If you can only work with people as smart as you are, you create a very stilted view of work and the world.