NYC Scrapping Gifted and Talented Program Is a Triumph of Redefining Language

Branding disparate racial outcomes as "segregation" is an effective way in Democratic polities to tear down programs some progressives don't like.


As has been telegraphed for years now, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on his way out of office has announced the wind-down of his school system's Gifted and Talented program.

The move is more symbolic than seismic—in a K-12 system with an estimated (though obfuscated) 900,000 or so students, only around 2,000 kindergartners will be materially affected by the change next fall, and the likely incoming mayor, Eric Adams, has said that he prefers expanding, not euthanizing, the G&T program. Basing any large educational fork in the road on a 4-year-old taking a test has always struck me as bizarre, so if Adams revives gifted tracks, I hope he changes the qualifications.

But at a time when public-school gifted programs across the continent are being dismantled in the name of "equity," the decision accelerates the progressive policy trend of working backward from concentrations of educational status—whether gifted programs, specialized high schools, or even just institutions with a positive reputation—then measuring the racial composition of students and declaring the results evidence of "segregation" if there are too few black and Latino participants.

"The highly selective program, which has become a glaring symbol of segregation in New York City public schools, will be replaced for incoming students," ran the subhed in today's New York Times article by activist education reporter Eliza Shapiro. And don't blame the headline writer—the piece is shot through with such loaded, contestable language, from the opening words: "Mayor Bill de Blasio will overhaul New York City's highly selective, racially segregated gifted and talented education classes." More:

The gradual elimination of the existing program will remove a major component of what many consider to be the city's two-tiered education system, in which one relatively small, largely white and Asian American group of students gain access to the highest-performing schools, while many Black and Latino children remain in schools that are struggling.…

Some parents and researchers argue that the programs worsen segregation and weaken instruction for children who are not in the gifted track.

New York, which is more reliant on selective admissions than any other large system in America, is home to one of the most racially segregated school systems in the country….

Though the mayor has long promised to tackle inequality in city schools, he has faced criticism for not taking more forceful action on desegregation until the end of his mayoralty.

And so forth.

I've been swimming in this language for so long that it mostly rolls off my back, but today's move and the journalistic coverage thereof mark a noteworthy triumph for the persistent, intentional redefinition of language to serve activist ends.

For years, much to my naive bafflement, it was front-page news that the mayor refused to characterize his own school system as "segregationist." No, really: "De Blasio Won't Call New York Schools 'Segregated,'" ran one New York Times headline. The mayor "has spent the last 5 years avoiding use of the word 'segregation,'" Shapiro complained on Twitter in February 2019. How could the utterance of a single word by a single person matter so much?

Well, the activists were onto something. When de Blasio finally cracked in March 2019—"this old system…has perpetuated massive segregation—not just segregation, massive segregation," he told WNYC's Brian Lehrer—it heralded a sharp turn in the mayor's support for the far-left educational approach to racial equity.

In the ensuing months, de Blasio, amid an ill-fated presidential run, declared his "hate" for charter schools and "high stakes testing," accused (through a spokeswoman) critics of his controversial then-Chancellor Richard Carranza for leading a "racially charged smear campaign," and removed all selective entrance requirements for schools, defending the latter move thusly: "I like to say very bluntly: Our mission is to redistribute wealth."

By finally endorsing the activists' deliberate conflation of the two importantly different meanings of the word segregation, so that disproportionate clusters of racial compositions within various institutions could be seen as interchangeable with the government-enforced, race-based denial of access to said institutions, de Blasio not only added legitimacy to the disreputable political tactic of branding policy skeptics as racist, he developed noticeable enthusiasm for their agenda as well.

Will that agenda succeed on its own terms of integrating schools, let alone on the hopefully broader goal of improving educational outcomes for individual children? One initially worrying sign from the point of view of professed school-desegregationists is that the early adopters of de Blasio's equity agenda were bleeding enrollment even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Districts that rapidly shed population do not tend to become more integrated; they also lose funding and public support. It also doesn't help that the people pushing hardest for "equity"-based policies are frequently the loudest about trying to shut down the charter school option for families trapped in the residential zones of bad schools.

But perhaps the greatest long-term threat to those who equate racism with disproportionate racial outcomes is that the rest of us will begin to take them seriously. Which is to say, the greatest single racial-disparity story in public education over the past year and a half has been the devastating effects of school closures on poor and minority communities. Those closures were supported most materially by some of the same groups preaching loudest about school desegregation and anti-charter animus: teachers unions.

The best way to improve educational outcomes for all individuals is not to close down avenues enjoyed by a select few, but to give everyone potential access to the maximum number of quality options. Easier said than done, but never accomplished by a system of one-size-fits-all.

Related: Bureaucrats Are Trying to 'Control' School Choice.