In his successful mayoral campaign, Bill de Blasio had much to say about K-12 education and pre-K education. De Blasio expressed sharp skepticism about charter schools, attended by 6 percent of New York City children. He pledged to hike the marginal income-tax rate on those earning over $500,000, from 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent, to fund “universal pre-K education” and “after school programs for middle school kids.” Chester Finn at the Fordham Institute assessed 24 of de Blasio’s school-reform proposals. Finn praised the idea of “getting every child to read by third grade” but dismissed the “preschool promise” as “over-the-top unaffordable.” And Finn brushed aside nine of de Blasio’s proposals as “crowd-pleasing rhetoric that’s essentially impossible to turn into anything serious.”
What about higher education? De Blasio called for new science and technology programs at the City University of New York, which he sees as a job-creation engine for graduates of these proposed programs. According to Inside Higher Ed, de Blasio has made increased spending on CUNY “a budget priority.” He has promised to find $150 million in new funds for the university. New York, of course, has dozens of other colleges and universities, but CUNY is directly under the mayor’s control.
This means that de Blasio will have to deal with the controversy that grew out of Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt, called Pathways, to expedite the granting of CUNY four-year degrees to graduates of CUNY’s two-year associate-degree programs. Pathways has aroused intense opposition from the CUNY faculty union and from CUNY faculty generally. The controversy is rich with implications beyond New York City and State.
CUNY is a once-great university that was brought low by an open-admissions policy. The pivotal year was 1969, when a violent black- and Puerto Rican-student protest prompted the board of trustees to adopt open admissions. Within a year, enrollments soared from 20,000 freshmen to 35,000. Minority enrollments tripled. Academic standards, unfortunately, crumbled.
Eventually, the university stabilized by treating some of its constituent colleges as honors programs and allowing them to set fairly rigorous entrance and degree requirements. The policy also crowded a large number of minority students into the two-year programs; the academic ill-preparedness of these students, overwhelmingly graduates of New York City Public Schools, didn’t fit well into the political narrative about improvements in public education. Thus, the Bloomberg administration conceived of Pathways as a way of ushering the two-year graduates through the four-year colleges, standards notwithstanding.
This summary hardly does justice to the complicated politics of the situation, which now becomes de Blasio’s to manage. As an advocate for a more “fair and inclusive world,” de Blasio presumably wants to see greater percentages of minority students graduating with four-year CUNY diplomas. But as a champion of unions who enjoys the favor of the professorial class, he will face furious faculty members who don’t want their classes overwhelmed by students lacking the appropriate skills.
De Blasio has so far balanced himself delicately on the fence. In an interview with CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, he said: “As mayor, I would take additional steps to evaluate the effectiveness of a curriculum that has been rejected so dramatically by faculty. The experience and training that faculty members bring to their profession must be taken into consideration during curriculum development, or we risk sacrificing the academic quality of our city’s institutions.” That’s an example of restating the problem in lieu of having a solution.
The CUNY situation models the larger problem in the United States. In February 2009, President Obama declared his goal of making the U.S. the nation with the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020. That achievement would have required doubling the number of students attending college. Obama subsequently lowered the bar by saying that merely attending college for a while would suffice; four-year degrees were just an option. The president’s plan is in no danger of being realized, but it serves as a rallying point for those who believe that “social justice” is served by ushering as many young people as possible onto the moving walkway to college degrees. That a great many of these students lack the ability and ambition to make much of the opportunity seems not to deter the advocates, who likewise appear unfazed by the diminishing economic value of college degrees that represent little real accomplishment.
CUNY’s open-admissions policy was the first grand experiment in the United States in which high academic standards were traded away for mass production of degrees. It was a fiasco that continues to vex policymakers. How Mayor de Blasio will deal with it remains to be seen, but his background, both educational and political, offers little ground for optimism.
De Blasio took a bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1984, though the date is sometimes reported as 1983. De Blasio says that he didn’t complete his coursework on time, and his political interests may be one reason why. The New York Daily News paints a picture of him as an undergraduate student activist who defied a letter he had received from the NYU administration, warning him not to go ahead with a demonstration he was planning inside the Bobst Library. He and 40 other students nonetheless marched into the library and attempted to disrupt a board of trustees meeting.
This was far from being a one-off venture. At NYU, de Blasio “helped found a student coalition that took up the causes of scrutinizing the university’s finances and increasing student input in decision-making,” the New York Times reported. The Daily News offered a more circumstantial account. De Blasio majored in “Metropolitan Studies,” which featured courses such as “The Politics of Minority Groups” and “The Working Class Experience.” In other words, he majored in political activism, similar to today’s majors in “social justice” or “peace studies.” De Blasio helped found the “Coalition for Student Rights,” which agitated for direct election of students to student government, putting a student on the board of trustees, and getting the university administration to “release financial information to justify planned tuition hikes.”
After de Blasio finished at NYU, he earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The date for this is hard to pin down. Even the Daily News’s chronology of his life omits it, though Columbia does claim him as an alumnus. In any case, by 1988, at age 26 and with master’s degree in hand, de Blasio was in Nicaragua, working to support the governing Sandinistas. He became, for a time, an ardent supporter of the Soviet-backed Ortega government, and as the Times put it, “got a glimpse of the possibilities of an unabashedly liberal society, with broad access to health care, literacy and property.”
Even before his graduate school and college days, in high school, de Blasio had tried his hand at student organizing. In a richly reported account, the Daily News traced his family history back to his paternal grandfather, who graduated from Harvard in 1911, befriended the young Franklin D. Roosevelt, and had a successful writing career. The political gene ran in the family. As a 12-year-old, de Blasio was already organizing his classmates to change the system. “He pressured his middle school to give sixth- and seventh-graders hearings before they were disciplined. It was his first successful campaign.” Before long, according to the Times, he was attending “rallies against nuclear energy.” (His anti-nuclear focus persisted into the 1980s, when he supported the nuclear-freeze movement. He organized for the pro-freeze Physicians for Social Responsibility, and—not so incidentally—took a trip to the Soviet Union.)
In short, de Blasio has always been an avid consumer of trendy left-wing causes and a ready exponent of public policies based on progressive clichés. A tour through the causes that he has supported over the years is like strolling through a junkyard of rusted-out, smashed-out, and wrong-headed ideas. Then and now, such causes found their most ardent backers on university campuses. And so it appears that de Blasio has returned to the source for his current ideas of progressive reform.
The progressive magazine Blue & Green Tomorrow, for instance, sees a de Blasio mayoralty as “Bringing Social Justice and Sustainability to New York.” Journalist Matthew D’Ancona writes that de Blasio’s election means “socialism is no longer a bogey word” in the city. The new emphasis on social justice should be a boon to welfare programs. But de Blasio is also committed to “radically reducing carbon use” and instituting other “sustainability measures.”
Social justice and sustainability are, of course, the dominant campus ideologies of our time. The words are meant to secure instant approbation, not a careful weighing of gains and losses. “Social justice” for New Yorkers might translate into less effective law enforcement and higher rates of crime. “Sustainability” likely means keeping upstate impoverished by foreclosing the development of the natural-gas reserves bringing financial bonanzas to other states, such as Pennsylvania. A mayor can do only so much on these matters, but de Blasio knows that liberal environmentalism in New York City is the center of opposition to upstate fracking. That may explain his endorsement of Governor Cuomo’s successful ballot initiative to authorize the development of more casinos in the state. (Instead of a profitable energy sector in New York’s outback, give the denizens jobs as blackjack dealers.)
De Blasio the former campus activist has a thin record of actually serving in office. Those positions he has held, including as a New York city council member, have had more of an activist than executive flavor—especially his most recent job as the city’s Public Advocate. How will he make the transition to governing a large, complex city? I’m not among the 73 percent of voters who thought it would be a good idea to find out.