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Schools Debate: Gifted and talented, or racist and elitist?

NEW YORK — Communities across the United States are reconsidering their approach to gifted and talented programs in schools as vocal parents blame such elite programs for worsening racial segregation and inequities in the country’s education system.

A plan announced by New York City’s mayor to phase out elementary school gifted and talented programs in the country’s largest school district — if it proceeds — would be among the most significant developments yet in a push that extends from Boston to Seattle and that has stoked passions and pain over race, inequality and access to a decent education.

From the start, gifted and talented school programs drew worries they would produce an educational caste system in U.S. public schools. Many of the exclusive programs trace their origins to efforts to stanch “white flight” from public schools, particularly in diversifying urban areas, by providing high-caliber educational programs that could compete with private or parochial schools.

Increasingly, parents and school boards are grappling with difficult questions over equity, as they discuss how to accommodate the educational aspirations of advanced learners while nurturing other students so they can equally thrive. It’s a quandary that is driving the debate over whether to expand gifted and talented programs or abolish them altogether.

“I get the burn-it-down and tear-it-down mentality, but what do we replace it with?” asked Marcia Gentry, a professor of education and the director of the Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute at Purdue University.

Gentry coauthored a study two years ago that used federal data to catalogue the stark racial disparities in gifted and talented programs.

It noted that U.S. schools identified 3.3 million students as gifted and talented but that an additional 3.6 million should have been similarly designated. The additional students missing from those rolls, her study said, were disproportionately Black, Latino and Indigenous students.

Nationwide, 8.1% of white children in public schools are considered gifted, compared with 4.5% of Black students, according to an Associated Press analysis of the most recent federal data.

Gifted and talented programs aim to provide outlets for students who feel intellectually constrained by the instruction offered to their peers. Critics of the push to eliminate them say it punishes high achievers and cuts off a prized opportunity for advancement, particularly for low-income families without access to private enrichment programs.

In Seattle, a schools superintendent who left her job in May sought to do away with the district’s Highly Capable Cohort program, as the district’s gifted and talented program is called, blaming it for causing de facto segregation. In its own recent analysis, Seattle public schools found only 0.9% of Black children had been identified as gifted, compared with 12.6% of its white students.

The school board has approved changes that will do away with eligibility testing and make all grade schoolers automatically eligible for consideration for advanced instruction. In addition to grades, the selection committee will consider testimonials from teachers, family and community members.

The changes don’t go far enough for critics like Rita Green, the education chair of the Seattle Chapter of the NAACP. She has called for more work to build environments that nurture the intellectual development of all the district’s 50,000 schoolchildren.

“We want the program just abolished. Period. The Highly Capable Cohort program is fundamentally flawed, and it’s inherently racist,” Green said.

Debates over the criteria for admission to advanced courses and elite schools predate the latest national discussion about racial inequities, but have intensified since the killing of George Floyd.

In Boston, the school committee voted this summer to expand eligibility to its exclusive exam schools and guarantee spots to high-achieving students from poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Latino students account for roughly 42% of Boston’s 53,000 public school students — about twice the number as whites — but are vastly underrepresented in advanced courses. By the district’s account, fewer than 20% of the fourth graders invited to participate in advanced work classes were Latino, while 43% of those invited were white.

Many children are overlooked because of language and cultural barriers, said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of Boston’s Lawyers for Civil Rights. Subconscious bias among teachers who nominate students for the program also play a role, he said.

Elsewhere, the renowned Lowell High School in San Francisco in February scrapped admissions exams in favor of a lottery system. In Fairfax County, Virginia, parents recently lost a legal bid to undo their school district’s decision to do away with testing for admissions to a campus catering to high achievers in science and technology.

Most gifted and talented programs have relied on tests to determine eligibility, with some families spending thousands of dollars on tutoring and expensive specialized programs to boost scores and increase their children’s chances of getting a coveted spot.

Controversy over admissions into advanced education programs has simmered in other cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago. But nowhere has the debate been as intense as in New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio said last month that he would begin to dismantle the program in elementary schools, calling it “exclusive and exclusionary.”

Some parents, including Rose Zhu, have called on the city to expand the program, not do away with it. She joined dozens of other parents outside the city’s Department of Education building this month to protest de Blasio’s proposal, bringing along her 21-month-old daughter, who Zhu hopes will follow two older siblings into the city’s gifted and talented program.

“I live in Queens, and our traditional schools in our districts aren’t really good,” she said. “So the G and T program is the best school I can put them in.”

De Blasio’s likely successor, fellow Democrat Eric Adams, has said he does not support eliminating the program, which would put him at odds with some of his Black constituents. Adams himself is African American.

One such constituent, Zakiyah Ansari, the New York City director for the Alliance for Quality Education, wants Adams to follow through with de Blasio’s pledge.

“We believe every child is a gifted child, every child is a talented child,” Ansari said. “We have to have people as angry about taking away one program that impacts a few people and be more upset about the Black and brown kids who haven’t had access to excellent education.”

But Gentry, the director of the Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute, agreed that it was time for “a revolution to fix the problem that’s been long standing in terms of equity” in access to gifted and talented instruction.

She urged parents and school administrators to do the hard work of finding a compromise.

“I worry that the easy solution is to stop doing it,” she said. “I know the inequities exist. But the thing is, there’s a huge distinction between overhauling or eliminating.”


'Stupid' and 'insane': Some billionaires vent over tax plan

Elon Musk isn’t happy.

With a personal fortune that is flirting with $300 billion, the Tesla CEO — the richest person on earth — has been attacking a Democratic proposal to tax the assets of billionaires like him.

The idea behind the Democratic plan is to use revenue from a billionaires tax to help pay for a domestic policy package being negotiated in Congress that would, among other things, help combat climate change, provide universal prekindergarten and expand health care programs.

Musk, who recently blew past Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as the world No. 1 in wealth thanks to Tesla’s soaring share price, would be liable for perhaps a $50 billion tax hit under the Democratic proposal.

Forget it, he says.

“My plan,” the SpaceX founder tweeted Thursday about his fortune, “is to use the money to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness.”

He may well get his wish. Prospects for the billionaires tax appear to be dimming fast in Congress. The pivotal Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is signaling his opposition to the plan along with some others, including some of his fellow Democrats, who have described such a tax as logistically impractical.

Earlier this week, Musk argued, the fundamental problem is that government spends too much money — and he warned that the billionaire tax proposal could lead over time to tax hikes for more Americans.

“Eventually,” he tweeted Monday, “they run out of other people’s money, and then they come for you.”

The Democratic proposal, unveiled Wednesday by Sen. Ron Wyden, would tax the gains of people with either $1 billion or more in assets or three consecutive years of income of $100 million or more. It would apply to fewer than an estimated 800 people, who would have to pay tax on the value of tradable items, like stocks, even if they don’t sell them. Under current law, such assets are subject to tax only when they’re sold.

Supporters have said the tax could raise $200 billion over 10 years that could help fund Biden’s legislative priorities. Republicans are unified in opposition to the proposal. And some have suggested it would be challenged in court.

The Democrats’ proposal comes against the backdrop of growing concerns about vast economic inequality, with the wealth of many American multi-billionaires having accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to increased stock and home equity, even more than before the virus struck.

John Catsimatidis, the billionaire grocery chain and real estate magnate who owns Gristedes, condemned the proposal as something you would “expect Putin to do,” referring to President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

The billionaire tax plan, Catsimatidis told The Associated Press, is “a little bit insane.”

“The American people have reached the point where they’re saying, ‘Enough is enough’,” said Catsimatidis, who lost a bid for the Republican nomination for New York City mayor in 2013.

“Stop spending the money stupidly. They come up with budgets that are stupid budgets, and they want to make everybody else suffer for it.”

“Do we need infrastructure?” Catsimatidis added. “Sure, we need infrastructure. Do we need bridges to nowhere? No, we don’t need those.”

“You’re talking about the people that create the jobs,” he said of billionaires. “We can get up and go somewhere else.”

Leon Cooperman, the outspoken billionaire investor who has long denounced Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s own proposal for a wealth tax, has added his voice to the exasperation coming from some of the uber-wealthy.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Cooperman said of the tax, “I doubt it’s legal, and it’s stupid.”

“What made America great,” he said, “was the people who started with nothing like me making a lot of money and giving it back. A relentless attack on wealthy people makes no sense.”

Not every billionaire shares such outrage. A spokesperson for George Soros, the investor and liberal philanthropist, told the AP that Soros is “supportive of the proposed billionaires tax.”

And while Warren Buffett has yet to comment publicly on the proposed tax, the billionaire head of Berkshire Hathaway has long called for higher taxes on the ultra-wealthy like himself.

Bob Lord, a tax lawyer and associate fellow at the progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies, said that even if this particular proposal doesn’t pass, it does reflect how concerns about financial inequality are gathering momentum.

ProPublica reported in June that some of the richest Americans have paid no income tax, or nearly none, in some years — including Musk, who, the report said, paid zero income taxes in 2018. Critics argue that Musk’s criticism of the billionaire tax proposal overlooks the fact that Tesla’s rise has been aided by government incentives and loans.

Lord noted, for example, that the run-up in Tesla stock Monday, after a major order of Teslas from Hertz, increased Musk’s wealth by roughly $37 billion — more than what the IRS collects in estate and gift tax revenue from the entire country in one year.

Wyden’s proposal, Lord suggested, might need to close some loopholes.

“But I think they’ve done a pretty good job with it,” he said. “There are folks out there who are saying the billionaires will just put their money into non-publicly traded assets. But it’s not going to be that easy. It’s a pretty well-crafted bill.”

Such tax changes could also shift how billionaire philanthropists make donations.

Brian Mittendorf, a professor of accounting at Ohio State University, said he believes that in the short term, the billionaire proposal would lead some of the uber-wealthy to rush philanthropic contributions into so-called donor-advised funds. Such funds would allow them to receive tax deductions up front without distributing any of the money. (Donors can’t get the money back from these funds).

“If, in fact, this were to pass,” Mittendorf said, “it creates huge incentives to donate some of these assets that have gone up in value before the tax hits.”


CHILD CARE
Exacerbated by pandemic, child care crisis hampers economy

SEATTLE — After Bryan Kang’s son was born in July, the occupational therapist and his wife, a teacher, started looking for child care in the Los Angeles area. The couple called eight day care centers: Some didn’t have spots for months; others stopped taking their calls and some never answered at all.

So with no viable options, Kang scrambled to find a new job that would allow him to work remotely.

“I told my manager, ‘Hey, by the end of the month, I have to transition out,’” Kang said. “They were very supportive and very understanding because they’re all mothers. But now there’s one less body to see patients.”

Kang said he’s fortunate he found a job teaching online classes, but the unexpected career pivot forced him to take an 11 percent pay cut.

The truth is, even if he could find a day care spot for his now 3-month-old son, the $2,500 monthly cost of infant care is so high that taking a lower-paying job so he can work from home and care for the baby is the most financially sensible thing to do.

The child care business has for years operated in a broken, paradoxical market: low wages for workers and high costs for consumers. Yet the critical service somehow managed to limp along.

Now, the pandemic has made clear what many experts had long warned: The absence of reliable and affordable child care limits which jobs people can accept, makes it harder to climb the corporate ladder and ultimately restricts the ability of the broader economy to grow.

“Early learning is no longer seen as just a women’s issue or a children’s issue. It’s really seen as an economic issue. It’s about workforce participation,” said Mario Cardona, policy chief for Child Care Aware of America. “It’s about employers who don’t have to worry about whether they’ll be able to rely upon employees.”

Child Care Aware estimates 9 percent of licensed child care programs have permanently closed since the pandemic began, based on its tally of nearly 16,000 shuttered centers and in-home day cares in 37 states between December 2019 and March 2021.

Now, each teacher resignation, coronavirus exposure and day care closure reveals an industry on the brink, with wide-reaching implications for an entire economy’s workforce.

The national crisis has forced many people — mostly women — to leave their jobs, reshaping the child care crisis as not just a problem for parents of young children, but also anyone who depends on them. It has contributed to a labor shortage, which in turn has hurt businesses and made it more difficult for customers to access goods and services.

“The decisions we make about the availability of child care today will shape the U.S. macroeconomy for decades to come by influencing who returns to work, what types of jobs parents take and the career path they are able to follow,” said Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan.

President Joe Biden has pledged an unprecedented burst of federal spending in hopes of fixing the child care market. At a recent town hall in Baltimore, he assured parents they would “not have to pay more than 7 percent of your income for child care.” Federal money would go directly to care centers to cover costs in excess of the 7 percent cap. This means the median U.S. family earning $86,372 would pay $6,046 annually for child care.

Biden’s plan also includes universal pre-kindergarten, which could further reduce child care expenses for families. The expanded monthly payments from the child tax credit approved in Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package would be extended for another year. The president also proposed increasing the size of a tax credit for the cost of child care, all of which should help improve access for families.

The Congressional Budget Office has yet to score the costs as the measures are still being negotiated ahead of Biden’s departure Thursday for the G-20 conference in Rome. But Donald Schneider, a former chief economist for the House Ways and Means Committee who now works for the consultancy Cornerstone Macro, estimates the child care and pre-kindergarten support would cost $465 billion over 10 years. The one-year price-tag of the expanded child tax credit would be around $120 billion. The credit would cost an additional $940 billion if renewed for nine more years.

It remains to be seen what survives in the brutal negotiations in Congress for Biden’s broad family services agenda, but the pandemic is proving to be a make-or-break catalyst for the future of the child care industry.

At Forever Young Daycare in the Seattle suburb of Mountlake Terrace, Amy McCoy is burning out fast.

She’s spent half of this year trying to hire a new assistant for her in-home child care, but until then, the former public school teacher works 50 hours a week caring for children herself, and more doing the cooking, cleaning and administrative work needed to run her business.

“At what point is my day care more important than my own family?” McCoy asked.

One of McCoy’s assistants, who worked there for five years, quit the $19-an-hour job in April for a $35-an-hour job nannying. McCoy has posted the opening for an entry-level assistant on Indeed and Facebook, offering $16 per hour — nearly 20 percent more than the state minimum wage. She’s gotten few responses and all turned her down over pay, making hiring impossible without a tuition increase.

“Nobody wants to work for what I can afford to pay right now,” McCoy said. “I absolutely believe these are $20-an-hour employees, but I hate that, most likely, I will have to raise tuition.”

The U.S. Treasury Department noted in a September report that child care workers earn on average $24,230. More than 15 percent of the industry’s workers live below the poverty line in 41 states and half need public assistance. The sector has high levels of turnover, with 26 percent to 40 percent leaving their job each year. Nor is there much room to give among child care centers that tend to operate on profits of 1 percent or less.

In nearby Edmonds, Briana McFadden shuttered her business, Cocoon Child Care Center, last month due to the stress of the pandemic, though McFadden thinks she would have stayed open if there were government subsidies to stabilize the industry.

In 12 years in business, McFadden said she never raised tuition and was the rare day care in the affluent northern Seattle suburbs to accept low-income families on a state subsidy. In pre-pandemic times, Cocoon employed seven people to care for 37 children. Now McFadden plans to open a convenience store.

“It really wasn’t worth it to continue,” McFadden said, her voice quivering with emotion. “Day care is a hard business.”

Tatum Russell’s livelihood depended as much on McFadden’s day care as the restaurant that employs her to hand-bread seafood.

During a COVID-19-related day care closure in August, the single mom could only stitch together help from relatives for some of the time. Russell ultimately had to miss four days of work.

“It’s been a nightmare, and it’s not over,” Russell said.


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