By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
We are taught from childhood to not assume the worst about those who disagree with us; to consider the likelihood that they are motivated by good intentions, even when we are convinced that their recommendations would make things a mess. I have been trying to do that in regard to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign against New York City’s charter schools. (Charter schools are privately run but publicly financed schools, operating separately from the red tape and union rules that hamstring the public schools.)
New York City’s charter schools are successful, with test scores routinely above those of the other public schools in their vicinity. The parents of the students want them to survive. Yet de Blasio is determined to marginalize them, when he is unable to shut them down completely.
Last week he announced that he was going to terminate the plans for three Success Academy schools. (You may know more about these schools than you realize. They were the subject of the film Waiting for Superman, and have a long line of applicants seeking admission.) The first comment to the media by de Blasio’s School Chancellor Carmen Fariña was that the charter school students who lost their schools were “now on their own.” Under public pressure, Fariña later backtracked on her statement, but the damage was done.
It was a scenario that led Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal on March 6, to call de Blasio a “small and politically vicious man.” Writes Noonan, “Success Academy does particularly well. Last year 82 percent of its students passed citywide math exams. Citywide the figure was 30 percent. These are schools that work. They are something to be proud of and encourage.”
Parents and children from these schools demonstrated outside Albany in early March, hoping that Gov. Cuomo would step in to help them, setting up a showdown with de Blasio.
Why then does de Blasio oppose these schools? My suspicion is that his motive is to pay back New York City’s teachers unions for their support in his election run. Noonan thinks that is the case: “The teachers union doesn’t want any charter expansion. And they’re his base.”
But our purpose here is to see if we can locate a noble purpose for de Blasio’s behavior. Here’s what de Blasio says is his reason: He argues that the money spent on charter schools would be better spent on improving the public schools, which educate over 90 percent of New York City’s children. OK. But I don’t buy it. You would think an enlightened, open-minded liberal thinker would not want to cut short an educational experiment that may point the way to how we can improve our public schools — if his motive were the best interests of New York City’s children rather than protecting the union jobs in the public school system.
So let’s take a look at another reason de Blasio gives for his opposition to charter schools. He elaborated upon it recently during an interview on a local radio station. He argued that the problem with charter schools is that there is a “strong private-sector element” in their funding, especially from “big business.” De Blasio agreed with the host of the radio program who insisted that “a lot” of the charter schools “are funded by very wealthy Wall Street folks and others.”
Is this an expression of the class warfare central to the left’s understanding of how to construct public policy? It looks that way. One might even see a Marxist element in its contempt for capitalism. But, I repeat, we are looking for a high-minded motive for de Blasio’s attitudes. With that in mind, I have come up with what that motive might be. It would be something like the following: De Blasio sees “private” endeavors as “elitist,” as separate from the community as a whole, as benefiting only people of privilege. In contrast, he sees “public” activity as representative of the community as a whole, of the “people.”
It sounds high-minded. But even if this is what is in de Blasio’s heart, it is a motive that needs to be questioned. De Blasio would profit from some time spent reading the papal encyclicals on the principle of subsidiarity. The Popes have made clear that it is an error to think that society’s communal interests are served only by the state; that there is a vast array of societal needs that are handled effectively by “lower” associations separate from the government, such as civic and fraternal organizations, charitable agencies, religious groups, unions and professional associations.
The point is that when we work through groups such as — take your choice — the Salvation Army, B’Nai B’Rith, Catholic Charities, the Sierra Club, our union’s health-care plan, or a country club charity ball, we are working for our communal needs in just as direct and focused a manner as when we assign government agencies to deal with a problem. The Department of Labor cannot be assumed to be engaging in a purer form of communal work than the Red Cross. The Red Cross and the St. Vincent de Paul Society are not organized to secure goals separate and distinct from society’s as a whole.
Sometimes these private associations are more effective at their work than government agencies; sometimes not. Finding the dividing line is our task as citizens. The social encyclicals, however, instruct us in the wisdom of looking to the lowest level of communal association before turning to government agencies. These lower levels are likely to be more effective, and less of a threat to our individual liberties.
De Blasio seems not to be able to see this. His knee-jerk reaction is to turn to the government for his solutions; to view private agencies as suspect and at odds with the commonweal. Specifically, he appears unwilling to accept that charter schools and parochial and private schools can be as devoted to serving society’s needs as the public schools under his jurisdiction. The question is why.
I can think of only two possible answers. One would be a statist bias that portends nothing good for him or for those he serves as mayor. It is a bias that leads to inefficiency or corruption, or both. The historical record makes that clear. Look at Cuba; look at Venezuela. The other would be what Peggy Noonan offers as an explanation for de Blasio’s behavior: his willingness to ignore the best interests of New York City’s children to pay back the teachers union for their support in his election. If the latter is the explanation, de Blasio deserves Noonan’s description of him as a “small and vicious man.”
+ + +
Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford CT 06492.