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Tale of Two Progressive NYC Mayors: Lindsay and deBlasio

May 19, 2015

Years ago when I was in college one of my political heroes was NYC Mayor John Lindsay. A progressive liberal Republican (no… that’s NOT a misprint), Lindsay advocated racial justice in a city that still had de facto segregation and tried to implement grassroots governance into a highly centralized and bureaucratic city. I hadn’t drawn a parallel between Bill de Blasio’s challenges and Lindsay’s, but an article in today’s NYTimes does so. The format of the article is an interview between columnist John Guida and  Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College and the editor of “Summer in the City: John Lindsay, New York and the American Dream”. In the interview, Guida poses several questions that provide Viteritti with an opportunity to compare and contrast the times of Lindsay and de Blasio and they challenges they each faced in their first year. In the final question, Guida asks Viteritti what lessons de Blasio might learn from Lindsay, and Viteritti responds:

Beware of the school wars. Lindsay’s instinct to decentralize governance and give parents a voice made sense. When he set up three experimental districts in minority neighborhoods, he racialized an issue that could have had broad support. When he failed to act after the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board fired 18 Jewish teachers and administrators without cause, he left the city polarized and alienated many liberal supporters. Except for his pre-K proposal, de Blasio spent his first year carping at Bloomberg policies rather than articulating his own vision for education. In battling charter schools, he lost a chance to take ownership of a popular initiative that could enhance opportunity and advance his egalitarian goals.

Viteritti’s analysis of de Blasio’s education policy is erroneous on at least three counts.

First, Viteritti diminishes de Blasio’s earnest effort to get funding for universal pre-Kindergarten, which was a campaign promise he made.

Secondly, Viteritti’s characterization of de Blasio as devoting his time to “carping at Bloomberg’s policies” downplays his battles against Governor Cuomo to not only seek funding for pre-Kindergarten but to assert his authority to operate schools without interference from Albany. The major point of contention between Cuomo and de Blasio was over the continuation of Bloomberg’s ill advised local policy to provide free, taxpayer funded space to deregulated for-profit charter schools by displacing children from local neighborhoods to make room for children from other parts of the city. When Governor Cuomo sided with the charter profiteers de Blasio was forced to either spend political capital retaining his power over the operation of NYC schools or cede that authority to Albany.

 

Finally, and most importantly, I’m not at all certain that the “popular” deregulated for-profit charter schools advocated by Bloomberg and Cuomo “could enhance opportunity and advance (de Blasio’s) egalitarian goals”. The reasons deregulated for-profit charter schools are a “popular initiative” is that they receive substantial support from philanthropists thereby avoiding the need for additional funding, they do not require the redrawing of school attendance zones thereby avoiding the need to shift children from affluent schools into nearby schools serving children raised in poverty, and they limit enrollment to children of parents who are intensely interested in their children’s success in school thereby avoiding the challenge of working with disaffected and/or disengaged parents. When affluent and engaged parents can have their needs met without costing the taxpayers anything and without requiring changes to housing patterns it is no surprise that deregulated for profit charter schools are a “popular initiative”. Do they enhance opportunities for ALL children or meet de Blasio’s egalitarian goals? I think not.

I DO agree that de Blasio gets “little help from Washington”, in large measure because the Obama administration’s neo-liberal policies are in conflict with de Blasio’s progressivism. And I also feel that until recently de Blasio has not made his progressive stance explicit, and that has defined his initiatives as reactions against Bloomberg as opposed to being movement toward a clearly defined set of goals.

One parallel Viteritti failed to identify was that both men wanted to empower neighborhoods and disempower those who were previously in charge. In Lindsay’s case he was making an effort to disperse power to neighborhood boards to achieve racial equity. In de Blasio’s its to take power away from the plutocrats to help bring about economic equity. Lindsay did achieve some level of harmony in the city. Here’s hoping de Blasio’s economic equity goals achieve some modicum of success.

 

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