01/12/2012 03:51 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Mayor Bloomberg Picks a Fight with Teachers Union

If you have never seen a New York State of the City Speech...

What am I talking about? Of course you've never seen a State of the City speech. Nobody whose livelihood isn't tied to City Hall pays the slightest bit of attention to these annual affairs. If the mayor expected you to care about it, he wouldn't do it in the middle of the afternoon.

But there is a nice tea-leaf quality to this annual ritual. You can get a sense of what the Big Man really wants us to pay attention to, and what he's hoping we'll let him slide over. It's an opportunity to make plugs, declare upcoming political wars.

This year the big slides included the police corruption problem, which was mentioned in one brief phrase, and of course the ongoing probe into municipal corruption (think CityTime). And even though Bloomberg gave the speech in the Bronx, he didn't mention the plan to give Donald Trump a contract to operate a golf course there. Perhaps that's because it's one of the dumbest ideas in the long history of bad Bloomberg sports facility decisions.

Upcoming war: The next stage in Bloomberg's battle with the teacher's union is merit pay for the best teachers. The union hates this idea, arguing that the school community should work together and be rewarded together. In his speech the mayor announced a plan to offer $20,000 raises to teachers who are rated extremely effective two years running. It sounded as if this was something that might be privately financed by Bloomberg friends to do an end run around the union friends on the city council. That's a lot of change.

Also coming up on the conflict calendar: The mayor's announcement that he would encourage the legislature to pass "a RESPONSIBLE raise in the minimum wage" was a not-subtle way of reminding everybody that he's still opposed to the City Council bill requiring businesses with big city contracts to pay their workers a "living wage" ($10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without).

The big opening section of the speech was all about education. Improving the schools has been the mayor's great mission and he made a case for great progress, with still more miles to go. (The climb-the-mountain metaphor went on forever.) But the actual report card is very iffy. Under Bloomberg the city has sunk a ton of new money into education. Graduation rates are up. But those performance tests in which Bloomberg seemed to have put so much faith back when the city students seemed to be improving fast, turned out to show that they really haven't gotten much better at doing anything but taking old, familiar tests.

Bloomberg boasted about this special charter school or that hot new business-mentoring program. He noted that Morris High School, where he was speaking, was home to the Academy for Collaborative Studies, whose students built an award-winning robot. When you talk about the schools this way, it sounds like things are going great. Then you remember there are more than a million kids in the school system and that one painfully worked-out charter or robot project is just a drop in the still-struggling bucket.

The one thing that always hits me when I listen to these speeches is the incredible scope of everything in New York. As the mayor ran through his laundry list of achievements and things to do, your head spins. We're improving the zoo aquarium. Gov. Chris Christie is trying to steal the Hunts Point Produce Market, but we won't let him. We had 50 million tourists last year, but we'd have had a lot more if it was easier for Brazilians and Indians to get tourist visas. And on and on.

Cue the Latin band and the Irish step dancers and the local teacher who's a war refugee from Somalia. What an incredible place this is. Mayors come and mayors go, but the state of the city is just amazing.