Over the summer, an education panel convened by Bill de Blasio put New York City’s mayor in a bind: It recommended dismantling much of the city’s programming for gifted students in order to advance integration.
Hizzoner is known for his charged progressive rhetoric about ending inequality, but the proposal would compel him to stop talking and take on the thousands of families who like special academic offerings for their high-performing children. The panel argues in its report that the system serves to segregate by race, income, and language, and to “perpetuate stereotypes about student potential and achievement.” The panel would institute a moratorium on new gifted-and-talented programs, phase out existing programs, end the use of middle-school entrance criteria (such as grades, test scores, behavior, and lateness), and fundamentally alter high-school admissions practices. The panel would instead prioritize schoolwide enrichment programs so a diverse student body could learn together under one roof.
The recommendations were met by swift opposition from several city leaders, who defended programs for precocious children while acknowledging the imbalance in program enrollment. As for the mayor: He was conspicuously noncommittal in response to the panel of his administration’s own creation.
It would be easy to suggest that de Blasio—in Irving Kristol’s memorable language—is just another liberal mugged by reality. This story, however, represents more than a clash between one ambitious politician’s progressive aspirations and the educational equivalent of realpolitik. Whether America’s public-education system should give special attention to especially high-achieving students is a question that perpetually bedevils policy makers. It forces them to grapple with issues as fundamental as the meaning of equality and opportunity and the purpose of public schooling.