Making a Tale of Two Cities Come True

The City Council's three Very Bad Ideas will return New York City to incivility and danger.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03: The view from the 63rd floor of One World Trade Center, which opens for business today, is seen on November 3, 2014 in New York City. The skyscraper is 104 stories tall and cost $3.9 billion; it opens more than 13 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, destroyed the original World Trade Center buildings. Officials say the building is currently at 60% occupancy, with Conde Nast as one of the first major tenants to move in. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
The view from the 63rd floor of One World Trade Center, November 3, 2014 in New York City.

There were three efforts in the last few weeks by the city government nomenklatura that, if successful, will lead New York into a sad, downward spiral.

The first was a civil rights complaint filed by Public Advocate Letitia James against Success Academy charter schools. The second was the City Council’s introduction of eight bills that would decriminalize quality-of-life offenses. And the third was a follow-up proposal from City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to vacate some 700,000 arrest warrants for people who received summonses for these offenses, but never showed up for their court dates.

At first glance, these initiatives might seem to have little in common—except that they are misguided. In fact, they are very much related in that they share an acceptance of—and acceleration toward—lowest-common-denominator behaviors that debase the city.

The City Council’s three Very Bad Ideas will return New York City to incivility and danger.

Let’s start with Ms. Mark-Viverito’s eight-bill package of legislation that would transfer jurisdiction of public urination, littering, creating a disturbance, trashing a park and public drinking to civil administrative courts from the criminal docket. Supporters of the package argue that these “reforms” will unclog our criminal courts. The more important benefit, they insist, is that changing these offenses from criminal misdemeanors to civil no-no’s will “unshackle” the poor, blacks and Latinos—who are disproportionally caught violating these laws. It would keep them from having “criminal records [that threaten] putting them in danger of losing their jobs, homes and futures.”

The legislative package also includes provisions to direct and train the police to treat these offenses as civil matters. It is unclear whether the police would retain any real discretion to proceed criminally. That is because the bills also impose new and onerous record keeping and reporting requirements on the police—in an effort to suppress any enforcement.

That these bills are wrong-headed does not surprise us. That they are wrong-headed in so many ways staggers us.

Such changes would threaten the very foundation of “broken windows” policing that turned this city from one of the most dangerous to the safest. That, in turn, would dangerously and disproportionally impact minority communities. It is poor, black and Latino communities that not only suffer from most of these low-level offenses, but more importantly, from serious crime. In 2013, although the city was 53 percent black and Latino, fully 96 percent of shooting victims were black and Latino—as were 95 percent of those arrested for the shootings.

As New York Law School criminal law expert Robert Blecker has pointed out, the most effective form of deterrence to crime is the perpetrator’s estimate of swift, certain punishment. Shifting offenses to a civil tribunal—and then sending the message that not showing up before the court will be tolerated—reduces the odds and the deterrence substantially.

We don’t argue that every quality-of-life offense is a gateway precursor to a serious crime. But the failure to show up for a court hearing—whether intentional or by inattention—shows a staggering disrespect for the rule of law.

That may be Ms. Mark-Viverito and her colleagues’ intent, but it clearly is not the desire of the tens of thousands of low-income families they purport to represent. We juxtapose this “defining deviancy down” with the waiting lists of parents trying to get their children into Success Academy (SA) charter schools.

The SA charter schools have been in the news lately not only because of Ms. James’ complaint, but for two other reasons that appear to be vindictive, short-sighted and orchestrated by the Teachers’ Union. The first is Mayor de Blasio’s failure to release promised funds to SA’s pre-school programs. The second involves the release of a surreptitiously filmed video of an SA teacher losing her composure when a first-grader could not explain the answer she had written on an assignment.

The teacher’s behavior—ripping up the child’s paper, tossing it and conveying her disappointment and frustration—was inappropriate. The teacher was suspended and counseled, and she later apologized. It is clear from the video that this teacher was having a very bad day—as we all do. What is also clear from the video, but which has received no mention in the hysterical press coverage, is how focused the rest of the children remain. They were enthusiastic in wanting to volunteer the correct answer.

At a recent talk, Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of SA, given before the video’s anonymous release to the media, but 15 months after Ms. Moskowitz and the school principal had dealt with the incident, noted that 93 percent of SA kids tested proficient in math—compared to 38 percent statewide and 35 percent of NYC public school students. And 68 percent did so in English, more than double the state or city rate. She never even bothered to mention that 100 percent of SA kids passed the science exam, an extraordinary achievement.

But it was her description of what her teachers and schools do differently to achieve these results that stirred the imagination. That’s because it meant that all students could be well served in New York City schools—with the right philosophy, programs and leadership. They offer safety, discipline, longer hours, art, music and joyfulness in the classroom. She used a phrase that resonated: no-nonsense nurturing.

There were demonstrators at Ms. Moskowitz’s talk, and several of them were protesting the use of suspensions to discipline unruly and dangerous children. (Yes, even kindergartners can be dangerous when they throw chairs at teachers or other students.) In SA’s 10-year history, only one child has been expelled.

It was during the question-and-answer session that the federal complaint initiated by Letitia James ignited the room.

New York really can become a city of educational haves and have-nots—a real “Tale of Two Cities” that is utterly preventable.

Several of the questioners were plaintiffs or supporters of the 22 lawsuits brought against Success Academy—most initiated, funded, or supported by the Teachers Union. Ms. James’ latest effort to derail charter schools focuses on the needs of special education students, and SA’s supposed inadequacy in serving them. (Some 1,400 of SA’s 11,000 students are special needs kids; and all students at SA are selected by lottery—after their parents choose to apply there. Last year there were 22,000 applicants for 2,300 openings, making the odds of acceptance about the same as getting into Harvard.) Ms. James and her union supporters don’t like that parents are voting with their feet.

Ms. James’ specific complaint centers on SA’s inadequate number of special needs classrooms, where the student-faculty-paraprofessional ratio is mandated at 12:1:1. Ms. James conveniently ignores the fact that she has consistently worked against SA being allowed to co-locate in public schools that have excess space. The hypocrisy is almost as disturbing as the cynicism.

The efforts by those desperate to preserve the status quo—and thus the failure of the city’s public schools—risk making fact of rhetoric. New York really can become a city of educational haves and have-nots—a real “Tale of Two Cities” that is utterly preventable.

We juxtapose Ms. Moskowitz’s uplifting-yet-tough approach to the foolishness of Ms. Mark-Viverito’s criminal justice initiatives. On the one hand we have someone determined to raise standards and outcomes; and on the other, a politician pandering to behaviors that erode civility. We must choose wisely.

Making a Tale of Two Cities Come True