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Winter 2003
 
City Journal Winter 2003.
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In  P rospect

 

Leading off this issue is new contributor Joshua Kaplowitz’s hair-raising account of his annus horribilis teaching in an inner-city Washington elementary school: “How I Joined Teach for America—and Got Sued for $20 Million.” As much as City Journal readers already know about bad urban schools, Kaplowitz’s story adds a concreteness that makes even clearer the human reality of what such abstractions as poor leadership, low expectations, lax discipline, uninvolved parents, and a rule-bound culture really mean, and how they add up to educational failure. Kaplowitz’s description of the chaos that results is vivid; no less vivid, and even more heartbreaking, is the toll such failure exacts upon the kids who do want to learn.

The execrableness of the D.C. school system is an old scandal. With its 50 percent-plus dropout rate and dismal SAT scores, it is one of urban America’s worst. Which is why Sol Stern, in “Compassionate Conservatism’s Next Step,” urges that President Bush ask Congress, which runs the D.C. schools, to pass a bill instituting a voucher program in the nation’s capital. Ensuring that inner-city minority kids get an education that prepares them to seize the rich opportunities our demanding economy offers is, City Journal has argued, the last civil rights battle that remains to be won. Especially in the wake of the Trent Lott affair, here is a deeply symbolic opportunity for the president to show how his compassionate conservatism really does offer more hopeful, more effective solutions to the problems of the disadvantaged, especially in inner cities, than four decades of failed liberal nostrums.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has long put school vouchers out of the question even though he has made educational reform the touchstone of his administration, recently said that he might be willing to consider vouchers—once he has fixed the schools. What is so dismaying about this statement is the lack of understanding it reveals of what the voucher argument is all about. The voucher movement’s chief aim has never been to move pupils en masse out of the government schools into private institutions. All along, the idea has been that a massive dose of outside competition is the only thing that could prod the rule-encrusted, union-dominated school monopoly, run more for the benefit of its employees than its pupils, to bestir itself from its saurian lethargy and take its first lumbering steps toward reform. The ultimate goal is a functioning state school system, alongside an array of voucher-supported private schools, whose competitive presence will keep the state schools on their toes.

It is New York’s great misfortune that Mayor Bloomberg, for all his intelligence, doesn’t know this—and seems equally unaware that the last decade has produced a large body of experience-tested knowledge about how to run cities, much of it gained in his own town. With his self-made billionaire’s understandable self-confidence, he seems not even to know what he doesn’t know. The result is that he is making elementary mistakes, bound to make any City Journal reader wince at the unnecessary damage sure to ensue.

Chief among these mistakes is the just-imposed giant property-tax hike, whose underlying layers  of error Steven Malanga digs through in “Bloomberg to City: Drop Dead.” Resting upon the most mustily outworn assumptions and cursory knowledge of how his own government works, the mayor’s tax increase—probably not the last on his watch—will damage the city’s already fragile economy and make New York’s post-9/11 recovery all the more dicey. Bloomberg, Malanga notes, is the anti-Giuliani: unlike his predecessor, he sees himself as bowing to vast forces beyond his control, rather than taking mastery of the city’s fate. This is where City Journal came in, a dozen years ago; and we will continue to show in practical detail that New York is by no means the “ungovernable city,” but only seems so when no one steps up to the responsibility of governing it.

Finally, the attack from which New York is still struggling to recover sprang from an intensely foreign worldview and way of life that Americans are trying hard to grasp and to deal with. As the war against Iraq gets under way, you will be fascinated by Kay Hymowitz’s reflections on why American feminists are not coming to the defense of their oppressed Muslim sisters and Stanley Kurtz’s information-packed discussion of how hard it will be to bring democracy to Iraq and it neighbors—hard, but possible.

 

 


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