In recent years, as wealth has flowed upward in New York City, the media gaze has followed, fixing ever more intently on the lives of a tiny elite. No minutia proved too small to escape the notice of intrepid journalists on the 1 percent beat. We’ve heard about their bonuses, their apartments, their grooming habits, their dietary fetishes, even their breaches of etiquette as recorded by the Hamptons cyber-social police (courtesy of the New York Times reporter dispatched to those shores last summer). But in few spheres have the priorities and peccadilloes of the rich been chronicled so obsessively as in family life and education.
“Is This the Best Education Money Can Buy?” asked a lengthy feature article in The New York Times Magazine about Avenues, a new for-profit private school in Manhattan that charges tuition of $43,000 a year, and where everything from the farm-to-table cafeteria fare to the Sol LeWitt drawing in the theater has been selected with the sensibilities of the creative class’s most discerning parents in mind. “Is Ethical Parenting Possible?” queried an essay in New York magazine, which went on to describe New York City parenthood as a state “like war…in which it’s impossible to be moral.” Other articles have contained empathetic portrayals of parents sweating out the preschool admissions process at the city’s best private schools—and, later, worrying about the strain that competition and “overscheduling” places on their kids.
Of course, this variety of lifestyle journalism isn’t entirely new. And it’s not that these articles aren’t fascinating in a soapy, voyeuristic kind of way, or that there isn’t social value in covering the way rich people navigate the education system, maximizing their progeny’s advantages at every turn: it helps expose the rigging of the game, the way that money undermines meritocracy. But the disproportionate attention heaped on the small number of very wealthy families obscured what most New York families were up against in the Bloomberg era.
Take the issue of “overscheduling.” It’s become common wisdom that this is a serious problem, leading not only to anxious kids, with no time for fun between tutoring and tennis, but harried parents obliged to shuttle them around or pay one or two nannies to do so. However, in reality, for most New York families—say, those with parents earning less than $75,000, or roughly the bottom 80 percent—“overscheduling” is not only not an issue, but the problem is precisely the reverse: there is a shocking paucity of affordable after-school options in the city for kids.
In those weekday hours before dinnertime, older children need to be engaged and supervised, yet hundreds of thousands lack stimulating activities and adequate oversight. After launching the ambitious “Out of School Time” program in his first term, Mayor Bloomberg later proposed to cut his own signature initiative nearly by half—putting many of the city’s best programs (including a champion inner-city chess team) on the chopping block in his last two budgets. It was only after a full-court press from the Campaign for Children, a coalition of nonprofits, that funding was finally secured this past fall. But even so, out of 1.1 million children in city schools, only 15 percent are enrolled in city-funded after-school programs. A survey by the Campaign for Children found that most parents who rely on these programs would, without them, either quit their jobs or leave their children home alone—suggesting that a good number of parents of the 935,000 kids left out are, right now, doing just that.