As he moves to wreck New York City’s eight justly famed competitive-entry high schools, New York mayor Bill de Blasio implies he’s on a mission from God, but it seems more like a mission from the United Federation of Teachers. “Blessed are those who act justly,” the famously self-reverential chief executive declared at Harlem’s Bethel Gospel Academy Sunday, later returning to the theme to describe critics of his plan to impose entrance quotas on the eight schools: “I think scripture also tells us about the naysayers and the doubting Thomases,” he said. “Can I get an amen?”
Well, no. The mayor’s scheme needs to be seen for what it is—an effort to change the city’s public-school-performance conversation rather than a constructive public policy proposal. Plus, it’s a blatant pander to his political base—and a firm notice that a reelected de Blasio has no intention of turning away from progressive obsessions in favor of sensible governance. And he said as much Sunday. “I’ve got a new mandate from the voters. [And] I have a new chancellor who is focused on social justice.” The mayor might have added that the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, is focused on social justice to the exclusion of all else.
Following relatively brief and undistinguished stints heading the San Francisco and Houston school systems, Carranza arrived in New York in April, announcing that his top priority would be desegregating New York’s public schools. True to his word, he almost immediately attacked “wealthy white Manhattan parents” for, he claimed, blocking integration efforts—then instructed a critic to take “anti-implicit bias training.” Carranza has returned to the bias theme repeatedly, ignoring the central shame of the city’s schools: the thousands of students who graduate from its woeful high schools each year unable to do college-level academic work and—perhaps more significantly—incapable of performing in New York’s twenty-first-century economy, either.
It’s no surprise that such a scandal goes unmentioned in the de Blasio-Carranza calculus. Dragging it out in the open would expose the rot within, particularly the City Hall-United Federation of Teachers alliance dedicated to undoing the hard-won, if sadly modest, education reforms of the Bloomberg administration, and to minimizing the astounding success that the charter-school movement has had in educating some 100,000 of the city’s mostly minority children.
So it’s also no surprise that UFT president Michael Mulgrew has hopped aboard the social-justice bus, taking to a city newspaper last month to attack what he termed New York’s “academically segregated” high schools—with the eight specialized schools the obvious target. Mulgrew says too many schools are “highly segregated by academic achievement.” The assertion, of course, allows him to gloss over how tens of thousands of his union teachers fail to prepare middle-schoolers for such high schools. All this amounts to a deflector shield—the notion that social-justice pieties can do the job that Carranza’s Department of Education and Mulgrew’s UFT leave undone.
Public education in big cities is a fraught business. Politics regularly trumps pedagogy as a policy driver; social dysfunction in the larger community is an impediment to success that few educators—or politicians—dare openly to discuss, and blaming others for failure is a way of life. So alleging “segregation” as a cause of New York City’s often woeful schools—and scapegoating the city’s rare successes—is to be expected. But before the “segregation” trope becomes received general wisdom, de Blasio, Carranza, and Mulgrew need to address some important issues.
Fewer than 14 percent of the city’s 1.1 million public school pupils are white. How Carranza intends to redistribute them while creating significantly improved performance outcomes is not obvious, and he needs to explain a plan in detail—with particular emphasis on the historically explosive social consequences of such schemes.
Poverty has long been the go-to explainer for public school failure. But the astonishing success of the city’s often grossly impoverished Asian immigrants is steadily demolishing that argument. Poor Asians have become a commanding presence in city schools, particularly the specialized high schools, and imposing quotas on them as a matter of “justice” to other poor kids is a gross inequity.
The success of the city’s overwhelmingly minority charter schools is a daily rebuke to Carranza’s borderline racist notion that black and Hispanic kids need integrated classrooms in order to prosper educationally. That’s not to say that the mayor and the union lack answers; they have them in profusion, even if most are indistinguishable from excuses. De Blasio’s suggestion that’s he’s operating with a heavenly mandate would be worth a chuckle if the potential consequences weren’t so serious.
The specialized high schools have been a treasure held in trust by many New York mayors. What a tragedy if they should be diminished to irrelevance to serve the petty political goals of this one.
Photo: New York City’s Mayor’s Office