Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” describes a chilling future:
In 2081 America, “Everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.”
In Vonnegut’s story, the government’s ‘Handicapper General’ doles out artificial disabilities to make everyone equal. The Handicapper General forces ballerinas to wear masks to disguise their beauty. George, a character with above-average intelligence, has trouble thinking because his earpiece emits loud sounds every 20 seconds. George must also wear a bag of lead balls around his neck to ‘correct’ his above-average strength.
Vonnegut’s satire demonstrates the foolishness of enforced equality. Government-mandated equality is misguided because it is achieved by lowering the abilities of individuals, not by raising everyone to a higher level.
Progressives lobbying for equality in education are willing to drag exceptional schools and gifted programs down to the level of failing public schools – so long as everyone is equal.
A task force organized by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio released a proposal last month to integrate New York City public schools. De Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group’s (SDAG) proposed to cut most of the city’s selective schools and all gifted and talented programs because they do not integrate enough black and Hispanic students.
The plan recommends that the mayor discontinue Gifted and Talented selective admissions tests and issue a moratorium on new Gifted and Talented programs.
The report claims, “The existing use of screens and Gifted and Talented programs is unfair, unjust … These programs segregate students by race, class, abilities and language and perpetuate stereotypes about student potential and achievement.”
City Council speaker Corey Johnson and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz opposed the plan, along with leaders of New York City’s Asian-American community. Asian-American students receive 42% of offers for gifted admissions. As the poorest immigrant group in New York City, Asian families seek out selective schools to help their children climb to the middle class.
The SDAG’s report claims to promote equity and inclusion but undermines excellent education.
When he spoke to the National Education Association in July, de Blasio said he wanted New York City to “get away from high-stakes testing, get away from charter schools. No federal funding for charter schools.”
“I am sick and tired of these efforts to privatize…public education,” de Blasio said. “I hate the privatizers, and I want to stop them.”
What’s driving de Blasio’s hatred for charter schools and gifted programs? Could it be that those schools and programs are outshining public institutions?
The gifted and talented programs in New York City are valuable alternatives for families looking to escape the city’s dismal public schools. If de Blasio accepts the SDAG’s recommendations to cut gifted programs, all of the city’s public schools will soon become equally dysfunctional.
Jonathan Plucker is professor at Johns Hopkins University and on the board of the National Association for Gifted Children. He told the New York Times that the SDAG’s plan was “feel-good equity.”
“You can say everyone is being treated the same, but if they are being treated poorly, that’s a horrible form of equity.”
Undoubtedly, New York City should seek to remedy flaws in gifted programs by improving tests which identify gifted students regardless of family connections, socioeconomic status, or ethnic background. However, scrapping selective schools altogether eliminates a key avenue for high-quality education in New York City.
De Blasio, who recently dropped his bid for the Democrat presidential nomination in 2020, said, “No one should be the Democratic nominee unless they’re willing to stand up to Wall Street and the rich people behind the charter school movement once and for all.”
Many believe that mainline schools don’t perform well because they are underfunded, and that special programs draw money away from traditional classrooms. In reality, New York City’s public schools are some of the nation’s most richly funded. In the last U.S. Census Bureau report, New York City spent $23,019 per student — the highest of any state.
Clearly, the failure of traditional public schools in New York City is not due to funding.
New York City’s charter schools, which are composed almost entirely of minority populations, receive a fraction of the funding yet consistently outperform traditional public schools.
The SDAG’s plan does much more than promote “equity” — it enforces equal outcomes.
Mayor de Blasio was reelected on the premise that he would champion ‘fairness,’ but not everyone agrees that lawmakers should enforce equality. Government-mandated equality is a threat to quality education and individual liberty.