When longtime Bronx public education administrator Meisha Ross Porter was placed in full charge of that borough’s public schools in 2019, she invited friends, colleagues, and other interested parties to pony up $110 each for a wedding hall gala in her honor. A DJ spun records, the bar was open all evening, and Porter felt, in her own words, “deeply blessed [and] highly favored.” That’s one way to put it. Here’s another: The $40,000-plus blowout represented a remarkable self-celebration for a policymaking educator who has spent her career embedded in one of the worst-performing school districts in New York and, arguably, the nation.
But Porter’s blessings keep on coming. Following former chancellor Richard Carranza’s resignation, Mayor Bill de Blasio has just put her in charge of America’s largest public school system—a 1.1-million pupil behemoth with 125,000 employees and a bursting-at-the-seams 2021 budget of $35 billion, give or take a few hundred million in breakage. It’s likely to be a short gig, as the term-limited de Blasio leaves office in ten months, so it’s not reasonable to expect much of Porter. And that’s a good thing, given that there’s nothing in the record to suggest that she has anything positive to contribute—at least, not from the perspective of students and parents.
Any differences between the new chancellor and the departing Carranza regarding rigorous instruction and classroom accountability are too trivial to mention: neither educator seems to care much about either. Never mind pandemic-driven dislocations and such New York City staples as a mutinous teachers’ union, the near-disappearance of meaningful pupil-performance standards, and the shameful inability of a typical high school graduate to do college-level academic work: Porter, like Carranza, says that her priority is school integration.
Specifically, Porter and Carranza oppose the city’s so-called gifted-and-talented middle-school programs—a time-tested initiative meant to challenge high-performing children while keeping their parents engaged with the public-school system—on the grounds that they exclude minority children and thus perpetuate “segregation.” As did Carranza, Porter has targeted the program: “I want to really dig into [gifted and talented],” Porter said when her appointment was announced. “I think that is a top priority, and that is where my first focus will be as it relates to integration.”
“Integration” as Porter defines it is, unfortunately, a badly misplaced priority. Activists claim otherwise, but New York City’s public schools are not segregated in the traditional, black–white sense. School demographics at the elementary- and middle-school level tend to match the demographics of the neighborhoods where they’re located, and that’s to be expected. It’s a subject to be approached gently. The ripple effect of clumsy action historically has disrupted residential patterns and then the schools themselves. There’s no reason to expect a different outcome this time.
Moreover—and quite apart from the arrogant notion that black children must sit next to white children to prosper academically—there aren’t that many white children in the system in the first place. Fewer than 14 percent of New York’s schoolchildren are white, and the idea that randomly rearranging their desks will produce anything beyond more chaos is ludicrous.
But the issue has utility for the departing Carranza, for de Blasio, and now for Porter: it helps deflect attention from the reality that nobody credibly can claim that public school performance has improved over the past seven-plus years. If failure proceeds from racism, how can it be the chancellor’s fault? Or the mayor’s?
Another, more ominous, element is at work in the gifted-and-talented controversy—and in the related debate over the future of New York City’s high-performing, famously selective high schools, enrollment in which also diverges sharply from the system’s overall demographics, with children of newly arrived Asian immigrants dramatically overrepresented. Activists want to replace selective admissions with what would amount to quotas, and Asians are pushing back hard; it’s a potentially explosive situation. Meantime, Asian parents are becoming involved in the gifted-and-talented debate as well, and for the same reason: their children tend to outperform all others on the entrance tests, and they are increasingly unwilling to jettison performance-driven outcomes in favor of the quota-based admissions benchmarks that activists seek.
Though she’s a hawk on gifted-and-talented programs, Porter hasn’t had much to say about selective high schools, which, in any event, are not likely to be much of an issue during her almost-certain-to-be-brief tenure. They are, nonetheless, part and parcel of the debate over race, and thus the overall damage that she could cause likely would extend far beyond a relative handful of middle schools in, say, Park Slope and on the Upper West Side.
Much better, then, that Porter lay aside the “integration” issue altogether and focus on what are far more urgent matters anyway—principally the pandemic-driven chaos that now afflicts the system. All the schools won’t be open until the United Federation of Teachers is brought to heel, for example, and facing that challenge should be daunting enough for any chancellor.
Let’s face it: even under normal circumstances, the New York City public school system is no prize package. If Porter really wants to help, she should strive to do no new harm.
Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images