We have to stop tearing down achievement in the name of equality

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New York City is frequently a place where bad policy is dreamed up, but I have to admit to occasionally still being shocked to see some of the things that are proposed under the watch of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

This week, one of those proposals involved New York City schools. The New York mayor and kind-of sort-of presidential candidate had previously appointed a panel — the School Diversity Advisory Group — that he made responsible for making recommendations that would increase integration and diversification in city schools.

On Tuesday, they formally released a report that called for several major changes, including the phasing out of gifted and talented schools and programs. New York City’s elementary school gifted classes, for anyone who is keeping track, had roughly 16,000 students enrolled this year.

De Blasio has the authority to enact these proposals on his own, without approval from either the city council or the Legislature.

The concern, as you might suspect given the source of the recommendation, is that the gifted and talented programs are made up of overwhelmingly white and Asian students in a city that has a huge number of African Americans and Hispanics.

The solution, to this panel, is simple: reach down to the lowest common denominator as we search to be “fair” and “equal.” Eliminate programs geared toward advancement and achievement, because we don’t like the population of the people who are in those programs.

The issue of minority participation in these programs is, indeed, a problem. There is, in fact, an achievement gap and too many minority kids are being trapped in failing schools and are unable to access these gifted programs. We should try to fix that, obviously.

But rather than seek ways of lifting up students and schools that are failing to achieve, the panel recommendations seek equality by tearing down achievement.

As disappointing as the notion is, it is hardly a new one.

“Harrison Bergeron,” a short story written by Kurt Vonnegut in the early 1960s, tells a frighteningly satirical story about a society that forces equality upon its citizens by masking the beautiful, confusing the minds of the intelligent, and forcing the strong and athletic to wear weight. All so no one is unequal and no one feels inferior.

Behind Vonnegut’s satire is a very real observation about human nature. The willful enforcement of equal outcomes by tearing down the exceptional is not a recipe for human thriving and happiness.

Indeed, Winston Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons on October 1945 rather famously said, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

Quite right, Winston. Equality among the miserable is not preferable to unequal prosperity. Achievement is not evil, nor is an inherently stratified system simply because it is stratified.

Back to de Blasio’s panel and their recommendations; it seems obvious that they would prefer that New York students were equally sharing in miserable education outcomes.

If de Blasio approves this recommendation, he will be doing one thing, and one thing alone. He will be robbing high-performing students of an opportunity to grow and achieve to their highest potential. That is a disgusting and unforgivable abrogation of his duty to those kids, to his city and to this country.

We have to stop demonizing and fearing success in this country. You do not fail to achieve because someone else is able to achieve. Your neighbor having does not mean that you have not. Fostering high performance among kids does not keep others from performing.

We should seek to lift up, rather than tear down. We need to stop obsessing over equal outcomes and obsess instead about equal opportunities. New York City and de Blasio would do well to make that their priority.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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