Recently elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on the theme that he will seek to end “the tale of two cities” and narrow the gap between rich and poor in America’s largest city. He claimed to have achieved an electoral mandate, winning about 73% of the vote in the general election.
The Mayor’s first major policy initiative was to call for citywide pre-kindergarten for all children and the addition of after-school programs for older students. In order to fund this $540 million initiative, Mayor de Blasio wants a 0.5% tax increase on residents making over $500,000/year. However, the city does not set its own tax rates; the state retains that power. Longtime de Blasio ally Governor Andrew Cuomo fully supports that goal, and announced that he will create a statewide pre-k program, pre-empting the need for a tax increase. The Mayor responded that the state initiative did not provide long term committed funding for the pre-k initiative, and that he wanted the tax increase anyway even if it is not used for pre-k. In other words, the affluent must be taxed more not for any public purpose but merely because the new mayor believes it’s ”fair and just.”
Let’s examine some of the Mayor’s assertions concerning the electoral mandate he claims. De Blasio captured an overwhelming percentage of the votes cast in this city, where Democrats outnumber Republicans six to one, representing some 85% of registered voters. So the Mayor actually received fewer than a representative percentage of his party’s voters. All told, de Blasio received 74%, or about 753,000 of the 1,026,000 votes cast in the election, which had a turnout of less than one quarter of registered voters. When one examines the composition of those votes, the claimed mandate appears much narrower.
In 2012-2013, there were about 729,500 union members in the five boroughs of New York City. There are about 325,000 NY City employees, most of whom are union members. More than a quarter of New York’s wage and salary workers belonged to a union last year, according to a recent Labor Department report. That’s the highest rate of any state in the nation. In fact, New York has had the highest membership rate for 13 of the last 15 years, in part because of the many public-sector union members in New York City. So one might say that this is the mayor brought to you by union central casting, with the overwhelming percentage of his vote tally comprised of union members, even though union members represent less than 25% of total registered voters.
Now let’s look at the assertion that universal pre-k is a proper means of creating equal opportunity for the city’s poor children to narrow income inequality. Here, the results are mostly positive, although there appears to be substantial room for discussion. A 2012 Department of Health and Human Services review of the federal Head Start program found that the effects of such programs were initially positive but had dissipated by the 3rd grade.
If the Mayor is serious about creating equal educational opportunities for the city’s poor and minority children, why is he opposed to teacher reforms and accountability and to support for charter schools as advocated by his predecessor? Recent research at Harvard, MIT and Princeton has confirmed that well-run charter schools are achieving remarkable success compared with traditional public schools in improving the educational achievements of disadvantaged students in inner cities. The secret is autonomy. Freed from the bureaucratic straitjacket of teachers unions, charter-school leaders can hire and fire teachers more freely. They can also enforce standards for teachers and students that might spark protests and union grievances at a traditional public school. Charter schools take more risks, and they are held accountable for the results. When charter schools fail, they close. When other public schools fail their students, they mostly continue to cut off opportunity for more, mostly poor children.
In one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first shots at charter schools, his administration has proposed pulling $210 million in funds slated for buildings used by charters and nonprofit groups and using it instead for prekindergarten space. The city is effectively killing a Bloomberg administration program that paid for buildings that were mostly used by charter schools. The city owned the buildings but allowed charters to use the space. ”Once again, thousands of minority and low-income students and families have their educational future unfairly put in jeopardy,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, which supports charter schools.
About 50,000 children in NYC attend charter schools, and because of capacity limitations, 50,000 more are on on wait-lists to get in , out of a total school population of a little over one million children. Those who have the most skin in the game, the parents of children who are poor, are voting with their feet. The education battle is between a failing union monopoly and schools that are actually educating children.
So there you have it; the paradox of populism. Mayor de Blasio claims that his most important goal is to end income inequality, and that this goal is best achieved through education. But his solution is to pile on programs designed to feather the bed of teacher’s and other public worker’s unions rather than fix failing public schools. The pre-k programs he is proposing are little more than free day care for the children of the city’s poorer workers while at the same time vastly increasing union jobs to staff them. Because these programs will allow low income residents to spend even less time reading and playing with their children, does anyone really expect that the opportunity gap will be narrowed?