When New York City’s Department of Education cancelled Christopher Columbus Day earlier this month, it caught Mayor Bill de Blasio flat-footed. “I’m miffed,” he responded—explaining that he hadn’t gotten a heads-up because the department is “a massive bureaucracy” and sometimes things slip into the cracks.
It’s probably fair to say that the parents of the city’s 1.1 million school children— not invested in New York’s ceaseless Columbus kerfuffle but stranded during the pandemic by de Blasio’s $36 billion bureaucracy and betrayed by the United Federation of Teachers—are more miffed than the mayor. As well they should be. And doubtless they wonder why the platoon of candidates now seeking to replace the term-limited de Blasio isn’t making much of an issue of the DOE’s appalling pandemic performance or the teachers’ union’s full-pay Covid-19 stay-home strike.
Rare has been the parent who knows from day to day whether school will be open in the morning, to say nothing of September. And who knows how many parents have lost work time, or jobs, because fully vaccinated, fully paid teachers refuse regularly to come to class? Why not distract them with some political theater? For politicians, deflection is safer than candor. It’s easier to wrangle over ethnicity than to address issues of substance.
The mayor certainly is right about the DOE bureaucracy. Some 120,000–plus employees strong, it pretty much does what it wants, with scant concern for classroom results—and this isn’t the first time that de Blasio has been buffaloed by it. To be fair to the DOE, though, Blasio had already flirted with removal of the famed navigator’s statue from Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, back in 2018. He retreated when a glowering Governor Andrew Cuomo came down on the side of keeping it. So perhaps the education department assumed that the mayor wouldn’t object when it replaced Columbus Day in the school calendar with Indigenous Peoples Day.
The move touched off a predictable squabble that faded somewhat when the calendar was amended again—henceforth, the holiday will be known as Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous Peoples Day. Not everyone was happy with the compromise—Cuomo continued to scowl, and Italian-American groups scheduled public protests—but the decision stood and, as always, there will be no classes in New York City on the second Monday in October.
The last thing New York’s schoolchildren need at the moment is fewer classroom days. Between Department of Education fecklessness and the UFT’s mini mutiny, Covid-19 has hammered the city’s schools—and quality instruction was hard to find even before the pandemic. Indeed, there hasn’t been much obvious interest in readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic since de Blasio took office. The mayor’s first schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, set about erasing Bloomberg-era policies most obnoxious to the UFT. His second, Richard Carranza, recast the debate by racializing it. And his third, recent arrival Meisha Ross Porter, is so taken with race that she publicly terms black children “our students” to the exclusion of Asian kids and others.
So, to recap: first, we had a war on educational innovation—with charter schools a principal target—along with the abandonment of efforts to pinpoint and target failing schools. This left UFT president Mike Mulgrew smiling.
Then, crosshairs were laid on programs meant to assist so-called “gifted and talented” children, on high-performing middle schools, and especially on the city’s world-class selective-entry high schools, now increasingly dominated by Asian children. The result has been community turmoil and barely camouflaged threats from high places—witness Ross Porter’s reference to “our students.” Meantime, objective performance benchmarks—never robust—have been eroded to the point where high school graduating-class valedictorians need serious remedial work to perform at the community college level.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that Columbus-cancellation passes for substantive policy debate these days. Nobody has a stomach for real issues, including New York’s field of mayoral aspirants, who present a range of well-crafted, if largely disingenuous, education positions. None hints, for example, at the fact that a vast majority of the city’s African-American students come from single-parent households, that most Asian students do not—and that this, rather than racial bias, doutbless drives disparate academic outcomes.
None of the candidates, and precious few reformers in general, has the courage to make meaningful cultural, behavioral, or performance judgments. This is a general failure of political will, and it has produced a culture that accepts an effective year-long, full-pay teachers’ strike without blinking, while blaming the continuing collapse of the schools mostly on racism and related discrimination. Personal responsibility—in City Hall, at the DOE, at the front of the classroom, and most especially in the home—never enters the equation.
It’s easier to cancel Christopher Columbus and continue with business as usual. The kids lose.
Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images