New MI adjunct fellows Kathleen Porter-Magee and Wai Wah Chin join Brian Anderson to discuss the New York City education system, the reforms the Eric Adams administration could make, and the continuing need for choice, pluralism, and merit.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show are two new additions to the Manhattan Institute, Kathleen Porter-Magee, and Wai Wah Chin. Kathleen is the superintendent of Partnership Schools, which is a network of urban Catholic schools in New York and Cleveland. Wai Wah is the founding president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York. Both have recently joined the Institute as adjunct fellows where they're going to be focusing on education policy. Kathleen and Wai Wah, thanks very much for joining me on the show today.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Thanks so much for having me.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. So each of you looks at different issues in the world of education policy, but I think it's fair to say that what unites your work is a desire to preserve the best parts of the city's education system and to improve outcomes for its students. I think that's key. You've both written for City Journal in the past. And Kathleen, you wrote a report for the Manhattan Institute in 2019 on the place of Catholic schools in the broader school reform movement. So why don't you each talk a bit about your work in the New York education policy world and what you'll be doing at the institute? Why don't I start with you Wai Wah, and then Kathleen.

Wai Wah Chin: Thank you so much, Brian. It's a pleasure to be here talking about education, which is an extremely important issue for all of us here in New York. Actually not just New York, but everywhere. This is what determines not only what happens today, but what happens 10 years, 20 years from today.

I have focused on public education because I do think that we have to make sure that it's available in the best manner possible. That means addressing the needs of many different children: the smartest, the brightest, as well as those who need the most help. And actually, I shouldn't have split it that way, because sometimes the brightest need the most help because it is by nurturing them to produce the kinds of results that we need for all of society—the inventions that we have, the kinds of scientific advances, those are made possible by nurturing them, not by holding them back.

We see that there is a change right now in trying to diminish the role of meritocracy in public education, and we have to turn that back. And so that's how I started in the fight for the specialized high schools in New York City. And that has expanded to other areas, because not only do some of the forces want to get rid of the test for the specialized high schools in its most fair and race-blind, colorblind, ethnic background-blind. Gender, economics, all of that should not carry in such a test. They want to get rid of that. But they also want to get rid of the gifted and talented programs that feed into it, and all sorts of other good programs that have served our city well for generations.

And of course, that has led to the charter school issue as well: to try to create more choice, better options for all of our students. So I hope that gives you an idea of some of the things that we've done in trying to promote the best education for everybody in the city.

Brian Anderson: I think that's very interesting way Wai Wah and we'll come back to charters in a minute. What about you, Kathleen? Why don't you say a bit about Partnership Schools and then what you'll be doing at the institute?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Sure. Again, thanks so much for having me. I'm thrilled to be joining the Manhattan Institute and really excited to talk about the work of the Partnership, but also the broader kind of ed-reform debate and discussion here in New York. And I do feel like I attack this issue in New York City from both a policy perspective, but also from a very practical perspective. So I guess I'll start with practical and then move from there.

So on the practical, as you said, I'm the superintendent of Partnership Schools. So Partnership Schools is a private school-management organization. We run  nine, soon to be 11, urban Catholic schools in Harlem, the South Bronx, and also Cleveland, Ohio. Our flagship schools are here in Harlem and the South Bronx. We've been been running these Catholic schools, which are largely turnaround schools. So as we know, Catholic schools have been in crisis for many years now. Thousands of Catholic schools have closed over the past two decades alone.

And there are lots of reasons for that, but one of them, particularly in New York is because of the financial constraints that parents face. So parents who are raising their children, and do not have the means to pay for private school education, or to pay for a Catholic school education, are not able to opt in. And so they're relegated to whatever district school they're assigned to, or if they're lucky, to a charter school. And so in part because of that, Catholic schools throughout the city and the state have been closing in very large numbers.

So the Partnership School is seeking to turn around urban Catholic schools and put them on the path for long-term sustainability. And these are obviously, especially here in New York City, the Catholic schools are a critical part of the education landscape and of the infrastructure. Among our schools, one of them is the oldest Catholic school in the Bronx, founded, I believe 1854, and has been serving immigrant communities and immigrant students in New York City for many, many generations. And so ensuring there is a thriving, vibrant Catholic school sector in New York City, I think is really critically important.

So that's one really important piece of my work right now. And the other is the policy perspective where I write on and research issues related to curriculum and instruction, which I think is particularly coming back to the forefront here in New York City, where Eric Adams is putting the spotlight on the importance of things like phonics education, and the importance of things like choosing the right curriculum to help meet students where they are and bring them where they need to be. So I think both sides of that issue are really important to me.

Brian Anderson: Thanks, Kathleen. Advocacy, and this is probably directed more at Wai Wah, advocacy for educational pluralism in meritocracy in New York has become increasingly important, I think, in recent years. The city though has hit its current cap of 290 charter schools. I think it reached that in 2020, and the state has yet to lift that cap. One in seven New York City public school kids is now enrolled in a charter, yet the Bill de Blasio administration was really a determined foe of the city's admission system for its top public high schools, openly planning to replace the single test model with one that would take a more holistic approach.

This would have the consequence of slashing the share of Asian students at these schools. So how did advocates manage to advance their goals in such a hostile environment?

And then Kathleen, I wonder how you see the policy environment with regard to these Catholic schools that you are involved with. Are there things that the city could be doing to make things easier for them? So first Wai Wah, and then you, Kathleen.

Wai Wah Chin: Okay. The advocacy for education on my part, as well as a lot of other parents, started with the attack on the specialized high schools, as I said before. This was seen first by a lot of Asians to be directly against the Asian community, because in fact, Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza made no bones about it. They made it very clear that there were, as they would call it in different words, but too many Asians.

We don't think that there's any such thing as "too many." We shouldn't be talking about overrepresented or underrepresented, because if you talk about underrepresented that means that somebody is overrepresented. And to point to the students who are doing well in these schools, that's reprehensible to try to discriminate on that basis. And the DOE actually had a study that was done in 2012, I believe, which they squashed, they covered it up.

It was a study on the SHSAT that proved that it worked. It showed that the students who did well on the SHSAT in subsequent years did well in their actual academics, too. They followed the students for several years, and then the test takers for several years. So it was a lot of data there that showed that it worked well. But the mayor and the chancellor decided that they didn't like the makeup of the schools and wanted to get rid of the Asians. And not because they suddenly became stupider or lazier, but just because they were Asians. That is reprehensible.

So we started out in trying to deal with that issue first. That did take a long engagement process in forums, in rallies, in going up to Albany, going and talking to legislators. It was a very, very long process. And we were amazed at how the DOE could blindly just come in and show us charts and graphs of what they wanted to do to the students in these schools, cutting the kids of Asian descent by half, just because they were Asian. That was the goal.

So that really was not even serving the students. It was not serving the students that they wanted to get in, because they weren't trying to say that let's try to improve the education on the K-8, so that all kids had a better shot at getting into these schools. You have to prepare these kids. It doesn't happen all of a sudden that you can take the test after one day of cramming. It does not happen. It takes years of work to be prepared to take the test. And it's not really just the test. It's really all that comes behind the test, before the test actually I should say, because you spend a lot of time studying for everything that you do.

And then we were able to push back on that. We have Mayor Adams who has said on numerous occasions that... Well, initially he was actually backing de Blasio's plan to change the admissions policy. But we did spend some time talking to him. He has bought it into what we've been pushing for, which is more specialized high schools. If you think that they're so good, and so many people want to get into it, we should be creating more of them and preparing more kids to be able to get into them. So if you have 30,000 families taking the test every year, that's about one third of all the kids of any grade. So if you look at every single grade, that means that one third of the population of public school students want to have a shot at the specialized high schools.

We should create more of them. You keep the ones that are existing now on the one-test-only admissions policy. The other ones, you could tweak it a little bit here or there. And we should have it in every borough because you don't have a specialized high school, for example, in Queens. Why not? We should have one there. So, that's the start of it. But what happened is that because they didn't like what was in the earlier years, too—this is talking about the chancellor and de Blasio—they saw that the gifted and talented programs and the screen schools were also not, to their eye, in the right colors. And so they want to do education by colors, and that's not the way you do it. When they started to go down to the gifted and talented and said, "Well, we don't like that. Let's get rid of it."

And so that has been gotten rid of. And when you think about the generations of kids who have gone through that, you could even look back at the specialized high schools from the 1970s to the 1990s. Brooklyn Tech, which is the largest high school in America, actually, and the largest of the three specialized high schools, but also a huge high school, had a more than half of their students being black and Hispanic. And why was that? Because there were gifted and talented programs in every single neighborhood in every part of the city.

They got rid of these gifted and talented programs in the 1990s. There were many neighborhoods that pushed back on it. But in the black and Hispanic neighborhoods, they did not push back on that. They lost their gifted and talent programs. You could look at the map at where there are gifted and talented program deserts, and they will be in communities where you see that their students are not performing as well, and not being able to get into the specialized high groups. Because you do have to start from K-8. You cannot suddenly say in eighth grade, "Guess what guys? You're going to a specialized high school." It's devastating for even those kids who are not prepared for that to be in that position.

It's a similar story of what's happening in other parts of the country. At Lowell, there was a kid whose teacher was thinking, "Why is this kid so silent?" Why? Because this ninth grader was actually reading at a third-grade level, and he was petrified about speaking up. And so that's not the right thing for that kid. Nor is it the right thing for that school. Nor for the person who might have been better able to take advantage of that position to do things and learn things that would help eventually all of humanity.

So going back to that, how did we get into charter schools? Charter schools, why are we starting to talk about this? This came out recently in a couple of op-eds that I did on why Asians are interested now in charter schools. Why? Very simply because the best charter schools are way outperforming the public district schools. And as the public district schools are getting worse, we need to have those options. We need to increase those options, and we should be opening up more charter schools so that we can address those needs.

During this pandemic, we found that a lot of kids' families that were in the public district school system were so fed up by how badly things were run that they moved their kids sometimes outside of the city. They moved them into parochial schools also. We know a handful of them just personally, that have moved there. And they have said this is not right. What is happening in the public district schools? We need more options, we need better options.

Brian Anderson: Kathleen, speak to that perhaps a little bit. Wai Wah suggests that during the pandemic, these alternative institutions became more attractive, perhaps because they remained open for longer periods of time. There has been a drain from the traditional public schools into charters, and I believe into some parochial schools. Were you seeing that?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yes, absolutely. So I've got an enrollment report that's going to be coming out through Manhattan later in the spring. Some of the numbers are still coming in, but we were able to pull New York City public school and New York City charter school numbers and compare them to some Catholic school numbers. And essentially what you saw in Manhattan and the Bronx and Brooklyn is parents voting with their feet.

We saw public school enrollment decline. But even in spite of the charter cap, charter school enrollment increased, and Catholic school enrollment increased, which I think speaks to exactly what Wai Wah was talking about, that parents are clamoring for options. New York is, when it comes to private school choices, one of the most hostile choice environment. It doesn't exist at all. There is really no public money funneling to parents who need it to exercise their options.

And in spite of those obstacles of a charter school cap and a lack of private school choice, you still see this increase. And at the Partnership School in New York, we saw that explicitly. So our enrollment in the past year exploded by almost 15 percent in our schools. We maintained our re-enrollment and many of the new students were coming from traditional public schools. So I think what we're seeing right now, the pandemic was really kind of a great awakening, where parents who maybe weren't that happy to begin with were now demanding choice and demanding options.

And I hope that what we're going to see with this, particularly with a more reform-minded administration in the city, hopefully what we'll see is an elimination over time of the charter cap, an increase in the number of charter schools, particularly in New York City. And hopefully at some point we will also see the existence of some private school choice options for New York City parents.

Brian Anderson: So that does speak to the kind of policy environment that you'd be looking for, Kathleen.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think just having somebody who is more reform-minded more open, as Wai Wah said, to specialized high schools, more open to charter schools, and I hope will use the power of the bully pulpit to just speak to the need for parent empowerment and parent choice in education in the city.

Brian Anderson: Well, certainly after the de Blasio years, Eric Adams seems to represent some reasons for optimism. His Schools Chancellor, David Banks, has a pretty impressive background in history, as we've written about in City Journal. So I wonder, just to conclude, and we can start with you Kathleen, this time. I wonder what your view is on the environment right now? Are you optimistic that things are going to improve? What's your view of David Banks?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yeah, I am optimistic. I agree. I think his credentials and the team that he's surrounded himself with, both Adams and Banks, really suggest that those of us who have been pushing for change for a long time have reason for optimism. So I'm looking to the future with great hope. I think really there's an administration who's taking seriously the need to put student opportunity and student achievement back at the center of the conversation and to empower parents with options, whether it's in things like specialized schools, or hopefully eventually in charters or private schools as well. So I am hopeful about what the future may bring.

Brian Anderson: And what about you Wai Wah?

Wai Wah Chin: I am cautiously optimistic, and that's because it takes a lot of time to be able to make a good change, but very short time to cause destruction. Against de Blasio and Carranza, that's a very, very low hurdle. That's a very low mark to try to be better in for education. They were really toxic, and they did not really care about education. They said they did. They spent money on it. They threw money away in it. But they did not deal with the real issues.

In this first hundred days—we're getting to a hundred days now of Adams's administration—there have not been the same kind of attacks for which we are thankful. But we are not very pleased that the gifted and talent programs have not been reinstated. We are not pleased that the screened schools have been made into effectively just lotteries. And the whole notion of screened, the upper-end middle and high schools that are trying to sort the kids into their interests and abilities, if you take that all away and make it effectively a lottery, you're not going to be able to concentrate and focus on the kids as they need to be.

So I think that we want to see more. It is important because that is not a lot of time. There's just not a lot of time to make these changes for the children. If we think about the two years of learning loss that has happened, for some kids, that's their entire education. Okay? If you're just a second grader, you've lost most of your education. So I think that there's a lot of challenges here. I'm cautiously optimistic. We do need to press for lifting the charter cap and getting on the policy side more ways of supporting the options for parents.

Brian Anderson: All right. Well, thank you very, very much. We'll have plenty of opportunities to be working together in the future. Don't forget to check out both Kathleen Porter-Magee and Wai Wah Chin on the City Journal website. That's We'll link to their author pages in the description so you can find their work there. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. As usual, if you like what you've heard on the podcast today, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Thanks very much for both of you for coming on the show today.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Thanks so much.

Wai Wah Chin: Thank you for inviting us.

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

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