Over the last decade or so, the defining narrative in urban education has been one that blames teachers and absolves society. And so a press conference today where New York City’s new mayor and schools chancellor defended their decision to keep schools open—despite 9.5 inches of snow and still falling—proved especially telling.
"Many of our kids don’t get a hot lunch and, in many cases breakfast, unless they go to school," chancellor Carmen Fariña told ABC. "So it's still a parent’s decision whether they send their kids to school or not. My decision is where the kids are safest and the most taken care of, and the answer to that is in schools."
As she said this, New York’s governor was busy declaring a state of emergency.
Teachers are understandably upset, as are parents and students. Every morning and afternoon, all three of those groups embark on an elaborate criss-cross of the city to get to school. Rarely, and less so amid an era of choice and soaring housing costs, is that commute a matter of a few blocks.
After 20 years of Republican rule in New York City, all eyes have been on mayor Bill de Blasio to see if he might roll back some of the rhetoric toward parents and teachers. As noted education activist Diane Ravitch wrote last month, "What should Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña do? They should restore the morale of the city’s educators."
The failure to declare snow days, and the city's justification for keeping schools open, have all but eroded that chance. To characterize schools as daycare centers demeans the important work teachers actually do. It also nods to the real pressures they face every day—hunger, poverty, parents with no backup day care—even as a city asks them to somehow turn these children around. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman writes, "the family into which a child is born plays a powerful role in determining lifetime opportunities. … some kids win the lottery at birth, far too many don’t — and most people have a hard time catching up over the rest of their lives. …Success … is in truth largely a result of factors determined long before children even enter school.”
Certainly, natural disasters have made (and broken) many politicians. Several times this bitter winter, de Blasio could have employed a disaster response similar to that during Hurricane Sandy, where public spaces were opened to city residents in need of meals, child care, heating. Instead, he has risked public safety—and his political will among his most important constituents. If there are any lessons to be gleaned from this endless winter, it is that cities need far greater social safety nets than their schools.