In New York City’s government-run education system, as a general rule, you can guess how bad the school is by how grand and imposing its name is. At the High School for Law and Community Service in the Bronx, the college-readiness rate of students leaving high school last year was 6.5 percent. Brooklyn’s Academy for Young Writers isn’t exactly delivering the next generation of Jonathan Franzens and Zadie Smiths: Only 12.3 percent of their class of 2016 was deemed ready for college, according to the city’s own figures, and Brooklyn’s Victory Collegiate High School is, naturally, a special favorite among the irony gods, with 2.7 percent of its seniors ready for college.
As for the graduation rates of these schools? Eighty-one percent, 86 percent, and 76 percent, respectively. In the city’s many badly served neighborhoods, schools are handing out diplomas like participation ribbons and booting woefully unprepared high-school seniors out the door. Ready or not, world, here they come.
In grades three to eight, only 36 percent of kids in New York City Department of Education schools are earning a passing score in math. In English, the pass rate was 38 percent. Among black students, the numbers are absolutely dreadful: Twenty percent pass the math test; 27 percent, English. Progressive ideals are firmly in place when it comes to the tests, by the way: New York State has been making the tests progressively easier to pass, the New York Post reported in December 2015. This, in a system that spends $23,516 per pupil. New Yorkers are paying Le Bernardin prices for a 13-year garbage buffet of public schooling. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s latest “reform”? To add a 14th year spent rubbish-savoring.
De Blasio, who believes he has not been given sufficient credit by the public for instituting a citywide pre-K program for four-year-olds, has just announced a plan to offer a year of pre-pre-K: public school for all three-year-olds. The mayor’s children are grown, so he seems to have forgotten that three-year-old toddlers aren’t exactly inclined to sit still and study the solar system. Managing the chaos and hanging on till naptime is about the best their minders can hope for; this is simply a proposal for free day care, a handout, a new entitlement for every family in the city, even the ones that could easily afford to pay for their own child care.
It’s unclear how serious De Blasio, who is up for reelection in November, is about the proposal. He promises the program will be up and running in four years, but he is term-limited to only four more years in office. Also, there’s a little matter of funding. He says he has found $36 million in the city budget to pay for pre-pre-K, but the program will cost some $1.1 billion. Even by New York standards, it takes chutzpah to promise voters something that is 97 percent unfunded.
The mayor is relying on an outside stash to pay for the idea: He’s asking the state and federal government to kick in most of the money. Angelina Jolie might as well ask Jennifer Aniston to buy her a new yacht, because de Blasio is bitter enemies with the chief executives of both of those governments. President Trump seems disinclined to shower de Blasio with federal lucre. The mayor is looking at a projected $3.8 billion budget deficit in two years, so dreaming big is probably not on the agenda.
Even by New York standards, it takes chutzpah to promise voters something that is 97 percent unfunded.
Not that pre-pre-K would even be much of a solution to New York’s schooling problem. The New York Times, cheering de Blasio along, notes that “the long-term benefit of early childhood education, particularly for low-income children, is one of the few things most [education] experts agree on.” Oh, really? The only one of the supposedly multitudinous studies the paper cites, by the University of Chicago’s James J. Heckman, is based on two experiments that started in North Carolina in the 1970s. The Times omits to tell us how many children were involved in these studies: Fifty-three in one group, 17 in the other.
Even if you find these studies persuasive, wouldn’t you want to see some intermediate demonstration of success before committing $1.1 billion a year? Moreover, the extremely intensive nature of the schooling and mentoring in that tiny study doesn’t sound like anything that’s likely to be replicated by the New York City Department of Education, as attested by tales of the infamous “rubber room” — where under-investigation teachers sit for years, with full pay for no work, while the teachers’ union does its best to keep them from ever getting fired. In larger studies, the evidence is at best mixed that pre-K schooling provides any lasting benefit whatsoever. Head Start, a 45-year, $7-billion-a-year experiment, had such pathetic results that even liberal Time writer Joe Klein said it should be abolished, noting that any benefits to the kids had vanished by the end of first grade.
If de Blasio were really interested in improving the quality of public education in New York City, rather than using an imaginary check signed by Donald Trump to pay for union jobs for his base and a free babysitting entitlement for parents of three-year-olds, he could make a move that would cost him nothing whatsoever: Expand the artificially limited access to the charter schools that spend less per pupil than the DOE schools while producing results that are often spectacular. There is enough space in Department of Education schools for 144,000 more charter students, families are clamoring to get a seat at the charters, but they’re bitterly opposed by Mayor de Blasio’s friends in the teachers’ union. When it comes down to a battle between the mayor’s political allies and the actual interests of New York City schoolchildren, though, even a graduate of the Victory Collegiate High School can guess how that’ll turn out.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.