Progressives who are elected to executive office have a unique opportunity to highlight neglected issues and stimulate much-needed debate, by taking actions which challenge the "conventional wisdom." They can change the political landscape by employing a principle that might be called "leadership by example."
The mayor of New York City is uniquely positioned to play this role, thanks to that city's prominence, and so far Bill de Blasio has done exceptionally well at it. Two of his actions -- on education and assistance to the poor -- deserve particular commendation, because they challenge the "bipartisan" consensus that has too often strangled open debate and left the public's interests unrepresented.
Action for the Impoverished
1. "Welfare Reform's" Record of Failure
"Centrist" Democrats like Bill Clinton, together with Republicans like Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, have long sung the praises of "welfare reform" -- a set of policies that promised to turn welfare recipients into "productive citizens" through a combination of educational programs, work requirements, and "tough love" that denied benefits to some of them.
Clinton signed the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act" on August 22, 1996, saying it would "end welfare as we know it and transform our broken welfare system by promoting the fundamental values of work, responsibility, and families." That bill quickly became a symbol of "bipartisan consensus" and a much-touted piece of model legislation for the neoliberal economic agenda.
Unfortunately, we now know that it didn't work. In fact, it backfired. A report from the University of Michigan's National Poverty Center showed that extreme poverty increased in the United States by 130 percent between 1996 and 2013 -- and pinpointed "welfare reform" as the cause.
Despite its documented failure, the myth persists that "welfare reform" succeeded. This belief has so far proved resistant to the mounting evidence against it, perhaps because it serves the personal interests of wealthy individuals and corporations who don't care to be taxed for antipoverty programs.
This "reform" myth also serves to assuage their consciences. Politicians like Cuomo and Clinton are all too happy to help in that effort by assuring wealthy Americans that this policy is smart, even liberal, and that it only coincidentally happens to benefit them personally.
2. The End of Welfare As They Know It
The mayor of New York City cannot supersede a federal law, but a recent executive action will hopefully serve to re-open the debate on welfare "reform." De Blasio ended the policies of his GOP predecessors and eased requirements for welfare eligibility in New York City. New rules will give young people more time to complete their educations, and native speakers of foreign languages time to learn English. He also cut back on some "workfare" requirements (which in some cases amount to little more than ritual humiliation.)
For the first time, allowances will be made for parental duties, travel time, and other obstacles which are faced every day by the poor -- but which are little-understood by prosperous "bipartisans" from either party.
As a de Blasio official explained, "we have the data to show that toughness for the sake of toughness hasn't been effective."
3. Data Driven
Data. That word is anathema to "centrist" politicians and commentators who claim to be technocrats, but who are actually driven by ideology, donor cash, or both. When de Blasio issued his orders the hyperventilation was, predictably, all but instantaneous. "We don't need to guess how de Blasio's welfare philosophy will pan out," wrote Heather McDonald, who is "Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute."
Reihan Salam fulminated in Slate that welfare programs must "rest on a solid moral foundation. And that, ultimately, is what work requirements are all about."
But when the work isn't available, or people have no practical way of obtaining it, it's immoral to make them -- or their children -- suffer. By ending the inhumane but "bipartisan" policies of his predecessors, Bill de Blasio has potentially re-opened the debate on the draconian and failed "welfare reform" concept.
Action on Education
1. Charter Schools Are "Special Interests"
De Blasio's much-publicized struggle with charter school CEO Eva Moskowitz began when he overturned Bloomberg's decision to give her "Success Academy" free space in city buildings. That led her to make a series of false claims about her organization's accomplishments -- claims that were effectively debunked by Diane Ravitch and Avi Blaustein. Success Academy students aren't the best in the state, they aren't the most difficult students in the city -- and the program is so cost-inefficient that it spends over $2,000 per year more per student than other schools serving similar populations.
Bloomberg was generous to Moskowitz because her program suited his predilection for Wall Street-friendly, corporate-cozy ideas -- ideas which appeared on the surface to promote innovation or "reform," but which on further study reveal themselves as a wealth transfer from the many to the few, often at the expense of the public good.
That's exactly what the charter-school movement represents. Sure, it sounds like a good idea: Schools will "compete" for students, and those which offer the best "products" will succeed. As writer and education activist Jeff Bryant says: Everybody loves "choice," right?
But the concept is flawed at its core. Schools aren't failing because students and their parents don't have "choices" in schools. They're failing -- to the extent they are, because even that concept is overhyped -- because they don't have choices in jobs or housing. Schools are struggling because we don't pay teachers well enough, because we underfund our school districts, and because social factors (especially poverty) inhibit the learning process.
2. Rockets to Nowhere
For all the hype and all the money, there's still no evidence that charter schools work. Advocates love to claim that "school choice" offers lower-income children a way out of poverty. But Milwaukee, which the conservative American Enterprise Institute calls "one of the most 'choice-rich' environments in America," remains one of America's 10 most impoverished big cities.
And kids aren't any more educated in Milwaukee than they were before they were given all this "choice." Educator Diane Ravitch reviewed the data and found that, 22 years after the program was implemented, there was no evidence of improvement in students' test scores.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reviewed the "Rocketship" program, which has bid to take over Milwaukee's underperforming schools, and found that it isn't working. They observed that "in 2012-2013, all seven of the Rocketship schools failed to make adequate yearly progress according to federal standards."
Call it "failure to launch."
3. Follow the Money
The EPI also noted that "Blended-learning schools such as Rocketship are supported by investment banks, hedge funds, and venture capital firms that, in turn, aim to profit from both the construction and, especially, the digital software assigned to students."
That might help explain why wealthy Wall Street investors paid Moskowitz's $2,000-plus-per-student cost overruns out of their own pockets. The same hedge funders also happen to have donated at least $400,000 to Andrew Cuomo's reelection campaign. Perhaps coincidentally, Cuomo led the charge against de Blasio after he moved to end Moskowitz's taxpayer-funded privileges.
Charter schools are an ideological and investment opportunity, which explains why enormous sums of money have been expended promoting them. (The latest effort, funded by $12 million from the wealthiest families in the nation, is something called "The Education Post."
Not all charter schools are driven by the profit motive, and some may in fact do a good job. But there is no evidence to support their claims, their operating principles, or the broader "free market" ideology behind them -- an ideology that is founded on hostility to government itself.
4. Breeding Fraud
Ravitch also notes that Washington, D.C., whose "Opportunity Scholarship Program" launched at least one educational celebrity career, was equally unable to demonstrate results. Its final-year report notes that "There is no conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement."
There is conclusive evidence, however, that the charter school movement has produced at least one fairly widespread outcome: fraud. A recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy, Integrity in Education, and ACTION United told the story. The report, titled "Fraud and Financial Mismanagement in Pennsylvania's Charter Schools," showed that the state had failed to properly audit or review its publicly-funded charter schools.
It also uncovered a pattern of abuses so disturbing it makes charter schools look like petri dishes for fraud. The director of one charter school diverted $2.6 million in school funds to rebuild his church. Another stole $8 million for "houses, a Florida condominium, and an airplane." Yet another used taxpayer funds to finance "a restaurant, a health food store, and a private school." A couple stole nearly $1 million for their personal use.
There are more revelations in the report -- and it only covers one state.
And yet, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, charter schools continue to be talked up by Bill Clinton, whose recent boosterism was described by Salon's Luke Brinker as "stunning" in its variance with the facts. (Jeff Bryant has more on the reality behind Clinton's disingenuous remarks.)
5. The Ongoing Battle
De Blasio acted wisely in moving to end Bloomberg's gift of scarce New York City school resources to Moskowitz. He was ultimately forced to back down, at least in the short term, after her big-dollar backers won a victory in Albany.
That was no surprise, given the money behind the so-called "reformers." But it's not the end of the story, either. De Blasio's position on charter schools triggered a fierce response -- but it also triggered a long-overdue conversation.
By challenging the conventional wisdom on charter schools, Bill de Blasio has started something their backers didn't want: a genuine debate on their merits. He may have lost a battle, but if the debate continues he's likely to win the war.
Leadership Through Action
By taking actions which challenge the orthodoxy of his own party's corporate wing -- an orthodoxy shared and taken to extremes by the entire GOP -- Bill de Blasio is changing the political landscape. Although he is reportedly close to the Clintons (he managed Hillary's 2000 senatorial campaign), his executive decisions are offering a new political vision for progressives who have felt starved for representation in the two-party system of recent decades.
De Blasio's deeds haven't been limited to education and welfare, of course. As we've discussed elsewhere, he's taken on issues that range from the minimum wage to the environment, and to housing as a human right.
He's made mistakes, and he's all but certain to make more as he navigates difficult political waters. De Blasio's trying to effect change from within the political process, which is always a risky endeavor. But he's made great strides in a short time. His is the sort of leadership which can change the national political landscape even as it improves the quality of life for his constituents.
Bill de Blasio is using his position as mayor of New York to lead -- with action as well as words. And for that he's owed a debt of gratitude.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will receive the Progressive Champion Award at the Campaign for America's Future 2014 Awards Gala on Tuesday, October 14. See the awards gala page for information and tickets.