Columns

Fred Siegel
The New York Disease
Winter 1993

What ails New York? Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, discussing the city’s inability to link kennedy Airport to Manhattan by rail, asked recently if New York isn’t suffering from the “British disease.” Pre- and post-Thatcher, Britain has excelled in explaining why things cannot get done. Socially sclerotic, the British seemed incapable, at times, of even the most minor innovations. Until recently their standard bathroom sink had separate hot and cold nozzles so that someone washing his hands was alternately scalded and cooled. For our part, New Yorkers get scalded financially by continuing to collect bridge and tunnel tolls by hand at $40,000 plus per toll taker even though automation would be cheaper, more efficient, and environmentally beneficial.

It is not that we are incapable of spending vast sums on the infrastructure—particularly to subsidize the transportation lobby. But essential projects, like a new West Side Highway or a rail link to the airports, are beyond our political capabilities. Newsday’s Jim Dwyer has noted that the 63rd Street subway tunnel has yet to be completed—”four mayors, four governors, five MTA chairmen, and five Transit Authority chief executives after it was begun.” Moynihan points out that considerable federal infrastructure money is in the pipeline for the state. “The great question for New York is this: Can the State do anything intelligent with that money?”

A declining faith in government and politicians is by no means peculiar to New York. The success of both the Perot campaign and the term limits movement has been matched across the industrialized world by a rebellion against established parties and entrenched bureaucracies. In Denmark and Canada, voting on European unity and a new constitution respectively, voters rejected the advice of all the major parties and political leaders. At the same time, the proportion of the vote garnered by the major parties in France and Germany has shrunk sharply, while in Northern Italy the Lombard League—which looks upon Rome’s “civil servants” and the pork-barrel politics of Southern Italy much as Staten Island looks upon city hall—wants to separate from the rest of the country. For the Lombard League, Northern Italy’s direct commercial connections with Central Europe are as important as the region’s legal links to the Italian capital’s kleptocrats.

In the new “boundary-less economy,” political consultant Todd Domke argues, politicians are becoming “custodial figures, rather like museum guards and less and less part of creating anything.” But while Domke’s statement may be too strong to describe places that have either competitive party systems or initiatives and referenda, it certainly applies to one-party New York. The recent senatorial primary and general election were notable because in the face of the sharpest economic downturn in New York State since the Great Depression, the local economy went virtually unmentioned. Instead the candidates vied with each other over who had been more victimized. Meanwhile, in the absence of political options, disgruntled New Yorkers made for the exits.

New York’s political and institutional arteriosclerosis notwithstanding, there are some mildly encouraging signs of adaptation that suggest possibilities for renewal. With the global economy beyond the control of Washington, let alone local government, the city’s ability to compete will depend more than ever on an area where it can still make a decisive difference: the quality of its schools.

Back in the Age of Aquarius, the City University of New York and the Board of Education decided to venture where no school system had gone before: They scrapped the distinction that had previously been made between those who tried to achieve and those who did not. In a set of mutually reinforcing “reforms” that sent the schools spiraling downward, CUNY admitted all high school students regardless of their program of study or grade point average. The public school system, meanwhile, closed down its “600 schools,” the facilities that were used to separate violent teens from the general student population. In sum, standards were scrapped in favor of a perpetual second chance.

Because of CUNY’s policy of open admissions, the high schools were no longer pushed to prepare their students to jump the college admissions hurdle. The end of the 600 schools and a series of court decisions limiting the ability of principals to expel toughs ensured that the culture of the high schools was more and more dominated by the culture of the streets. Students forced to attend crime-ridden classrooms—there were 17 gun-related “incidents” in the first six weeks of this school year went to college unprepared, forcing the colleges, at great cost and with rapid student turnover, to become remedial institutions. Not even metal detectors have been able to stem the flow of blood in the high school halls. But at CUNY, in the midst of sharp budget cuts—cuts driven in part by a loss of public confidence—the faculty identified the quality of incoming students as the system’s biggest problem. It is the primary reason why, for example, only 8 percent of students at York, one of the senior colleges, graduate within five years. Overall, only half of CUNY students ever make it to their junior year, and only one in five earns a degree within five years.

For years a New York strain of the “British disease” produced an imaginatively evasive explanation of why nothing could be done. At times this took the form of a cycle of recrimination: CUNY insisted that the high schools had to raise their standards and the high schools answered back in kind. So much had been invested in both “reforms”—sold as the answer to minority achievement—that for two decades it was politically impossible to note their all-too-obvious failure.

But the palpable loss of public trust has begun to have an effect. It appears now that both CUNY and the public school system have undergone a partial “relearning” and are, without openly admitting it, beginning to bypass the “reforms.” First, though CUNY still does not require a particular grade point average for admission, it is beginning to phase in a series of new requirements. By 2001, students will have to take an academic curriculum in high school in order to be admitted. Second, in order to cut down on “churning” (the rapid turnover of students who never graduate), a proposed new tuition schedule reintroduces a hidden form of screening by charging higher tuition for a student’s first term while awarding free tuition in the last term. Similarly, Chancellor Joseph Fernandez has revived the idea behind the 600 schools. Through the nonprofit Wildcat Service Corporation, he has created a voluntary school where troubled kids can get special attention. Two more such schools are planned.

All this may be too little, too late to head off the “British disease.” But if there are antidotes, educational reform is surely one. Without an accelerated academic restructuring, the city has little hope of withstanding the chill winds of regional and international competition. Unless we restructure our schools and other institutions, placing them under greater local control, we, like the British, can expect a long descent into second-class status.

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