New York’s Separate and Unequal Schools

New York’s Separate and Unequal Schools

New York’s Separate and Unequal Schools

The nation’s most diverse public school district is also its most divided.


As Mayor Bill de Blasio begins a second term with a vow to make New York the nation’s ”fairest city,” his first assignment should be grading the fairness of the city’s schools. Decades after Brown v. Board of Education, school segregation is still rendering the nation’s most diverse public school district its most divided, putting children on divergent paths to poverty and privilege virtually from birth, undermining the entire city’s future prospects.

So far, however, de Blasio has treated school segregation as a policy problem to be fixed, rather than a symptom of ingrained structural injustice in the city institutions, from its public housing to its police force. The city’s new school “diversity plan” has centered on tellingly unambitious goals: One aim is creating more racial diversity by boosting enrollment at “racially representative” schools by 50,000 students. To address “economic stratification” across district lines, the mayor aims to shave 10 percent off the proportion of schools (about 150 total) that are considered highly segregated by family income.

The focus on statistics ensures that the changes will be perilously incremental—for example, a school can be up to 90 percent black and Latino and still be considered sufficiently “diverse.” So when the Center for NYC Affairs calculated the impact of the plan, it found that the reforms would not actually dent the overall segregation patterns—and the city’s targets were essentially already on track to be met anyway, through ongoing population shifts, rather than policy interventions. In other words, de Blasio’s diversity plan in its current form wouldn’t do the hard work of desegregation that parents and teachers have been demanding.

Setting arbitrary “diversity” standards obscures the institutional factors driving racial segregation in education. The city’s system of school choice encourages privileged parents to move to higher-performing, affluent, and often disproportionately white districts, which inevitably leaves behind, and excludes, poor children of color who get stuck in unstable, underfunded schools. Gentrification in previously underserved neighborhoods is compounding the division by squeezing low-income families out of their own neighborhoods by raising the cost of living and pushing communities away from their local schools. Many families, in turn, are struggling with eviction as new neighbors jack up the rent on their streets while taking over the local PTA, changing the culture and programming of their children’s education.

The plan also includes other piecemeal reform proposals, such as easing the middle-school and high-school admissions processes and promoting district-based pilot desegregation plans.

According to Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation—a recent appointee to the administration’s diversity advisory committee—“Mayor de Blasio originally ran on a platform of ending the ‘Tale of two cities’ and has now declared the goal of making New York ‘the fairest big city in America.’… He cannot do either without reducing school segregation.” And that requires building respect and cooperation between divided communities.

Segregation persists today in part because de facto housing patterns have replaced the more explicit segregation policies of the past, such as real-estate redlining and blockbusting. The demographics of the city’s school districts are changing because neighborhoods are, statistically, becoming more ethnically mixed, but they’re also more divided: As more whites move in, inequality grows and schools become polarized internally by academic performance. This trend is exacerbated by testing systems that sort children based on rigid standards of “meri,” but often result in biased outcomes that are skewed by race and socioeconomic status across public-school institutions. The segregation of neighborhoods is then further aggravated by wholesale housing displacement when rents rise, which erodes the entire neighborhood’s social and cultural fabric. For the mayor’s second term, Kahlenberg argues, “boosting affordable housing will have a direct impact on school integration, particularly at the elementary level.” And on that front, neighborhoods must be seen holistically: “Housing policy is school policy.”

Rather than tacking “diversity” onto a list of talking points, making our schools work for all the city’s students demands an integrated approach to integration: The inequalities facing poor children and communities of color also tie into the discriminatory violence of the criminal-justice system, unequal access to mass transit and affordable housing near top schools, and a general lack of staff and infrastructure to ensure decent opportunities for all. Confronting these intertwined crises calls for honest debate around the provision of the social services that families need to make all schools sustainable.

Historically, comprehensive desegregation has often been hampered by discrimination and racial anxieties over whether “letting in” children of color undermines school quality. But some communities have started reversing segregation through models that balance respect for free choice for parents and an ethos of social justice for youth.

One model, now spreading across the country, is “controlled choice,” which has been shown in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to encourage both racial and economic integration while improving student performance overall. The model allows parents a large degree of selection, but structures student assignments based on district-wide standards for achieving demographic balance, across equitably resourced schools. The result has been schools that are both racially “balanced”—with a blend of poor, wealthy, white, immigrant, and black and Latino students learning together in each school building—and that have boosted achievement scores for black and Latino students well above national average.

Similarly, in Jefferson County, Kentucky, school authorities have used a method of assigning students that allowed parents to choose schools, but also sorted students based on integration targets. Diversity goals were reached gradually, with public support, and black-white performance for college readiness “nearly doubled—from 32 percent to 63 percent—from 2011 to 2015.” Specialized magnet programs created avenues for learning that didn’t just diversify schools but also enriched them culturally.

In a diverse but divided city, solving segregation means helping working-class families stay securely housed in flourishing neighborhoods, and efforts to protect communities from gentrification must be conscientious of the educational experiences of local youth. When public schools are anchored in the community, they not only benefit from an integrated neighborhood, but redeem the real promise of spreading knowledge: gaining power.

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