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.