‘If you want to live in New York,” Rawlie Thorpe tells Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, “you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate.” At the time of the novel, in the brassy Eighties, only the plutocracy could afford to do so. But in the Giuliani–Bloomberg era of the following two decades, the upper middle class began to learn the trick as the young, creative, and ambitious flowed in by the busload. Maybe it was just possible for hard-working and clever people who weren’t rich to extend Rawlie Thorpe’s insulation strategy.
Pre-Giuliani, the one horror from which there was little insulation, mainly in Manhattan, was the school system. As soon as a couple announced they were expecting a baby, if they didn’t appear wealthy enough to afford private school the inevitable follow-up question was: “So when are you moving to the suburbs?” Most New York City schools are so terrible that only families who have no other options send their kids there. But there are a few good schools scattered around the city, and so upper-middle-class parents tend to congregate in areas such as the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn for them. Notably, in many cases, excellent schools and dropout factories exist within the same Department of Education (DOE) building, sometimes even within the same nominal program. This leads to squawking about educational “inequity.” If some kids are doing well with schools, but their neighbors aren’t, the hard-left handbook says that the problem is the kids who are doing well.
Some DOE schools are bifurcated between the ordinary school and the “G&T,” or gifted-and-talented school. Get your child into the G&T program, thanks to a test given at age four, and he is effectively insulated from the poor teaching in the classrooms right down the hall. The system creates what Mayor Bill de Blasio considers an unacceptable demographic breakdown. This year Asians accounted for 43 percent of all students in G&T programs, despite being only 20 percent of kindergartners, and whites were another 36 percent despite also being 20 percent of kindergartners. Black and Hispanic kids were underrepresented. But that doesn’t mean de Blasio is pushing to win them more spots in charter schools such as the 94 percent black and Hispanic Success Academy, whose 17,000 students as a group out-performed every school district in the entire state (including suburban Scarsdale, where the median household income is $292,000 a year and only 8 percent of students are black or Hispanic).
De Blasio happily made use of Thorpe’s insulation trick, which carves out some space to thrive for motivated kids, when his own kids were growing up in the city. Both of his children, Chiara and Dante, attended “screened” public high schools that use testing to determine eligibility rather than accepting a random selection of applicants. Yet in December, de Blasio and his education chancellor Richard Carranza said that they were ending academics-based admissions for middle schools next year (while keeping them for high schools such as the ones de Blasio’s children attended). On Tuesday, the DOE grandly announced that it was scrapping the G&T test, too. Parents, predictably, were furious, and said so.
The next day, “after gathering community input,” as the New York Post dryly put it, de Blasio hedged, mumbling something about a replacement for the G&T system involving “something very different starting in September, with a more individualized approach to education with a greater use of digital options to augment the work of classroom teachers.” So is the G&T test being replaced with some other selective system, or not? Carranza said he wants to “bring people to the table, to have a conversation about what the research says, to understand historically what folks have wanted in our school system.”
De Blasio’s mayoralty ends December 31, so it’s quite possible that after seven-plus years in office he’ll simply continue jawboning around New York City’s “table” about the supposedly urgently needed changes until he yields the keys to City Hall. New York City might be in for a stroke of good fortune: A non-lunatic who does not appear to owe anything to the activist Left, former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, is shaping up as a strong candidate and is talking about restoring the city’s business environment rather than social justice.
One option that de Blasio alluded to Wednesday is simply expanding and strengthening the G&T program: “Do you really believe out of 65,000 kids in this city [in each grade], only 2,500 are quote-unquote gifted and talented?” he said. If de Blasio intends to create more insulation rather than stripping it away, his mind is (for a change) pointed in the right direction. But considering the damage he has done already to the city’s long-term health, his term can’t end soon enough. Ending some of the few options for upper-middle-class parents while continuing to oppose the expansion of charter schools, which currently serve more than 100,000 of the city’s million-plus public-school students, would be an invitation for successful New Yorkers to move elsewhere. A quick walk around Midtown will demonstrate that many New Yorkers have fled already; it’s up to the city’s leadership to entice them back, not make things worse. Otherwise the city could fall back into a Seventies-style slump rather quickly — with much more desolation and much less insulation.