How Bill de Blasio Changed the Conversation About Education
In recent years, as wealth has flowed upward in New York City, the media gaze has followed, fixing ever more intently on the lives of a tiny elite. No minutia proved too small to escape the notice of intrepid journalists on the 1 percent beat. We’ve heard about their bonuses, their apartments, their grooming habits, their dietary fetishes, even their breaches of etiquette as recorded by the Hamptons cyber-social police (courtesy of the New York Times reporter dispatched to those shores last summer). But in few spheres have the priorities and peccadilloes of the rich been chronicled so obsessively as in family life and education.
“Is This the Best Education Money Can Buy?” asked a lengthy feature article in The New York Times Magazine about Avenues, a new for-profit private school in Manhattan that charges tuition of $43,000 a year, and where everything from the farm-to-table cafeteria fare to the Sol LeWitt drawing in the theater has been selected with the sensibilities of the creative class’s most discerning parents in mind. “Is Ethical Parenting Possible?” queried an essay in New York magazine, which went on to describe New York City parenthood as a state “like war…in which it’s impossible to be moral.” Other articles have contained empathetic portrayals of parents sweating out the preschool admissions process at the city’s best private schools—and, later, worrying about the strain that competition and “overscheduling” places on their kids.
Of course, this variety of lifestyle journalism isn’t entirely new. And it’s not that these articles aren’t fascinating in a soapy, voyeuristic kind of way, or that there isn’t social value in covering the way rich people navigate the education system, maximizing their progeny’s advantages at every turn: it helps expose the rigging of the game, the way that money undermines meritocracy. But the disproportionate attention heaped on the small number of very wealthy families obscured what most New York families were up against in the Bloomberg era.
Take the issue of “overscheduling.” It’s become common wisdom that this is a serious problem, leading not only to anxious kids, with no time for fun between tutoring and tennis, but harried parents obliged to shuttle them around or pay one or two nannies to do so. However, in reality, for most New York families—say, those with incomes under $75,000, or 80 percent—“overscheduling” is not only not an issue, but the problem is precisely the reverse: there is a shocking paucity of affordable after-school options in the city for kids.
In those weekday hours before dinnertime, older children need to be engaged and supervised, yet hundreds of thousands lack stimulating activities and adequate oversight. After launching the ambitious “Out of School Time” program in his first term, Mayor Bloomberg later proposed to cut his own signature initiative nearly by half—putting many of the city’s best programs (including a champion inner-city chess team) on the chopping block in his last two budgets. It was only after a full-court press from the Campaign for Children, a coalition of nonprofits, that funding was finally secured this past fall. But even so, out of 1.1 million children in city schools, only 15 percent are enrolled in city-funded after-school programs. A survey by the Campaign for Children found that most parents who rely on these programs would, without them, either quit their jobs or leave their children home alone—suggesting that a good number of parents of the 935,000 kids left out are, right now, doing just that.
This is a scandal in a prosperous city—but other than perfunctory news stories about the annual budget dance, it’s mostly gone unnoticed. While feature reporting and service journalism have focused on the well-to-do, the kinds of questions that preoccupy parents who are middle-class or low-income—what can you do if your child is underscheduled?—are rarely even raised.
When topics such as childhood obesity do come up, it’s not usually in a way that’s helpful for most parents. The proposed ban on large sugary drinks is endlessly discussed—and the Vogue writer who put her 7-year-old on a diet becomes a media sensation—but no one considers the bind that parents are in because the city fails to fund after-school sports or physical education during the school day. Parents receive an annual fitness report that, after noting their child’s BMI, reminds them that he or she ought to be getting at least one full hour of physical activity per day. But the last time city officials checked, in 2011, not a single one of the thirty-one schools audited—not one—met the legally mandated minimum requirement of ninety to 120 minutes of physical education per week.
There’s been a similar pattern around issues affecting families with younger children. The difficulty of getting small children into top private schools has almost completely eclipsed the problem that consumes the lives of young families in the bottom 80 percent: the lack of universal public preschool. There are currently only 20,000 full-day spots for 68,000 eligible children. Everyone else has to either cobble together informal care or pony up for daycare, which costs an average of $13,000 per year—a sum barely manageable for most two-income households, let alone single parents. In affluent neighborhoods, the annual bill runs anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 per child, a burden even for some families making more than $100,000 a year, or the top 12 percent.
For poor and near-poor parents, who comprise nearly half of the city’s population, there might be Head Start; but then again, if you’re above the income threshold—$30,000 for a family of four—you’re probably out of luck. And yet we’ve heard far more about cronyism at the 92nd Street Y’s nursery school than about the way the city’s public pre-K lottery picks winners and losers among 4-year-olds.
Understood in this context, it is easy to see why Bill de Blasio’s proposal to provide universal pre-K and after-school programs for all middle-schoolers—and to pay for both by taxing the rich—struck such a chord with the public. Finally, here was someone promising to address the problems pressing on the minds of New York parents, and to do a bit to rectify the city’s galling imbalance in wealth to boot. If some found the resonance of his campaign’s themes a bit surprising, that was likely because they weren’t clued in to the concerns of ordinary New Yorkers. Given the skew of media coverage, you can’t entirely blame them.
Has this begun to change? It seems so: in the weeks before de Blasio’s inauguration, the Times featured a riveting five-part story about Dasani, a whip-smart 12-year-old who lived for three years in an unspeakably grim Fort Greene homeless shelter, and the paper has begun to beef up its reporting on lower-income communities. Elite media will remain elite media, and breathless stories about the private kindergarten rat race will continue to draw readers. But people appear to be waking up to the fact that Bloomberg’s gilded city neglected to provide basic social services alongside the refurbished parks and gleaming condo towers, giving New York more the appearance than the reality of “livability.” Whether or not de Blasio is able to persuade Albany to go along with his plans, at least he’s nudged the media conversation about family life in a new direction—closer to the one most of us were having all along.