By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
It is not yet clear whether New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will get away with his campaign to close down the city’s charter schools. What is clear is that he will not do it easily. He is in a fight. Commentators of all political persuasions are turning up the heat. What de Blasio is doing is being seen by more and more New Yorkers as an affront to fairness, decency, and common sense. He is closing down schools that help the city’s minority children, forcing them into failing neighborhood public schools.
Thomas Sowell, as one would expect, is in the vanguard against de Blasio. He asked in a recent column: “Why would anybody who has any concern at all about minority young people — or even common decency — want to destroy what progress has already been made” in the city’s charter schools? The progress of which Sowell speaks is demonstrable.
Writes Sowell, “Last year 82 percent of the students at a charter school called Success Academy passed city-wide mathematics exams, compared to 30 percent of the students in the city as a whole.”
Sowell does not beat around the bush regarding de Blasio’s motives: “One big reason, of course, is the teachers union, one of Mayor de Blasio’s biggest supporters.” The union realizes that charter schools “take power from politicians and bureaucrats, letting parents decide where their children will go to school. That is obviously offensive to those on the left, who think that our betters should be making our decisions for us.”
Mona Charen is on board with Sowell. In a recent column she notes that charter schools “currently educate about 20 percent of the students in Harlem and the Bronx, boroughs known for a) poverty, b) unemployment, and c) abysmal public schools.” The charter school that de Blasio wants to close down, the Success Academy, according to Charen, has “received 2,665 applications for 125 spots last year, making it more selective than the Ivy League.”
It picks its students through a lottery. “When the results are announced, a lucky few are jubilant. The faces of the remainder of the children are tear-stained and devastated.”
It is not just conservative commentators who see Success Academy as a beacon of light. The liberal New Yorker magazine wrote recently that 64 percent of Success Academy’s third graders “passed the state English exam and 88 percent passed the state math exam. At P.S. 123,” located in the same building as Success Academy, “only 18 percent of students passed the English test and only five percent passed the math test.”
Rather than build more such schools, de Blasio wants to close down Success Academy and send its students back into the failing, often dangerous, public schools in the area. Why is he willing to do this? Charen agrees with Thomas Sowell: “If you know anything about leftists, you won’t be surprised that he is actually training his fire on the poorest and most vulnerable. Remember that one of President Barack Obama’s first acts was to attack the school choice program in the District of Columbia.” De Blasio’s priority, writes Charen, “like many in his party…is the teachers union.”
On another topic, also involving de Blasio: the push to establish universal pre-K programs throughout the country. President Obama has joined with de Blasio in this effort. In a speech in early March, Obama stated, “I believe we should start teaching our kids at the earliest ages. So we’re trying to help more states make high-quality preschool and other early learning programs available to the youngest kids.”
The last budget he presented to Congress called for $75 billion in federal spending to support his goal of universal education for children as young as four years old.
Of course, as Terence Jeffrey observed in a recent column, when Obama says “we” and “our kids,” he is not talking about his children. They “attend the most expensive private school in Washington, D.C. — he is talking about other people’s children and grandchildren.”
Jeffrey notes that Obama’s budget also calls for $15 billion to “fund an Obamacare provision called the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program,” which will send government-funded “nurses, social workers, and other professionals” into people’s homes to “improve parenting skills.”
You read that correctly. The Obama administration’s plans go beyond universal pre-K. In the words of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in an address at the National Press Club, “what the president has put on the table is really a birth-to-five proposal, recognizing that you can’t start at four-year-olds.” Jeffrey describes this as a plan “to form your children’s character.” The “government of Obama and Kathleen Sebelius seeks to be the ultimate instructor of America’s youngest children — even in their ‘emotional skills’.”
Jeffrey is correct. The nanny-state is central to liberalism’s plan to “reform” society in what liberals believe is an enlightened manner. There is another motive at work, however. Liberals get elected by promising the voters free stuff. Another way of saying that is that they promise one segment of the population programs supported by the taxes of another segment. As some wags phrase it, they rob Peter to pay Paul.
The segment of the population that is promised the free stuff is the segment whose votes the liberal politicians are seeking to secure. It was former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill who described the strategy as “tax, tax; spend, spend; elect, elect.” It is a strategy that depends upon a never-ending search for a “societal need” that must be addressed by the government, something new to promise the voters. In this case, the politicians started with calls for the government to finance Head Start programs. From there it went to universal pre-K. Now we have the president and Kathleen Sebelius calling for “birth-to-five” programs to help with “parenting skills.”
The goal is always to find some government service that can be packaged as a “reform,” as a program to “help the children” — and to then portray the liberal Democrats who are promoting the program as the party of compassion and social justice, and those who oppose it as selfish and mean-spirited. We can see how it works: No matter how convincingly critics of the Department of Education make the case that it does little to improve education in the country, and no matter how few Americans can come up with even one or two things the department does to improve their local schools, it has become impossible to find a way to reduce its budget.
Republicans who make that proposal are portrayed as heartless and uncaring by their Democratic opponents. Invariably, the Democrat who makes this charge comes out on top on Election Day. This is a tough nut to crack.
+ + +
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.