Originally published in The American Prospect on December 9, 2015.
Six decades after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools are “inherently unequal,” integration may finally be coming to New York City.
With 1.1 million students, New York City is home to one of the nation’s largest public school systems; it’s also one of its most economically and racially segregated.
For decades, nobody in the city besides a few die-hard activists seemed to care much. Over the past year and a half, however, a perfect storm of provocative research studies, news reports, rezoning fights, and public advocacy have forced public officials to take notice.
Last month the New York City Department of Education announced that at the start of the 2016-2017 school year, seven public elementary schools will participate in a new pilot program designed to diversify student bodies. Each of the seven schools will be permitted to set aside a certain percentage of seats to give priority enrollment to various student populations, including English language learners and those living in poverty.
Though some advocates have expressed concern that the pilot program is too little, too late, there are signs that that even bigger desegregation efforts are yet to come.
This pilot represents the first concrete step taken by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration towards desegregating the city’s public education system. Despite de Blasio’s reputation as a progressive, his administration has so far failed to tackle the segregation issue head-on.
As an example of his administration’s half-measures, earlier this fall, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña suggested that instead of desegregating schools in poor neighborhoods, public schools could diversify by pairing students in wealthy schools with kids in low-income schools to share resources, meet in person, and become pen pals. Fariña also said school diversity could be promoted by teaching students about world religions in their classrooms.
These proposals drew fire from school equity advocates, but de Blasio defended them, and suggested that promoting school choice and high-quality schools are more pressing priorities than desegregation. Critics faulted de Blasio for perpetuating the policies of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who also did little to tackle segregation.
“The whole idea of us voting Bill de Blasio into office, with his mixed family, was for him to usher in a new agenda—a progressive agenda,” says Jose Vilson, a New York City math teacher and prominent social justice activist. “But what we’ve seen is that he still has to deal with the old politics defined by Giuliani and Bloomberg.”
De Blasio also took heat for failing to follow up on the few steps toward integration that Bloomberg’s administration did take. At the start of the 2013-2014 school year, P.S. 133, an elementary school located in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn, unveiled the city’s first-of-its kind admissions program to reserve spots for English language learners and low-income students. Bloomberg’s then-school chancellor, Dennis Walcott, hailed the innovative program as a potential model for other schools.
But de Blasio failed to follow through once in office, and officials within his administration told principals who wanted to establish diverse admissions policies that the city lacked the legal authority to approve their requests. School equity advocates cried foul—pointing to federal Education Department guidance posted in 2011, which affirmed school districts’ legal right to promote diversity through admissions.
Now that de Blasio has come around, advocates make sure to point out that they had been right all along. David Tipson, the executive director of New York Appleseed, an organization that promotes equity in schools, says that the de Blasio administration’s recent pilot announcement “represents a complete and utter rejection of those bogus legal arguments” that they had used for so long.
MOST SCHOOL INTEGRATION ADVOCATES have hailed the seven-school pilot program, but warn that de Blasio’s one-school-at-a-time approach has pitfalls. There are more than 1,700 public schools in the city, and if desegregation efforts are not carefully coordinated, then desegregating one school can have the adverse effect of exacerbating segregation at another.
To really foster school integration, advocates say, the city needs to adopt what’s known as “district-wide controlled choice”—a desegregation model used in other cities, such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Champaign, Illinois—that aims to balance parental choice with diversity. Parents rank their top school choices within a particular district, and then the district assigns students in a way that accounts for those preferences while also ensuring that each school has an integrated student body. (In New York City, this would mean assigning students within the system’s 32 separate school districts.)
“There’s always a fear with incremental change that the most recent increment is your last—that maybe this is as much as we’ll ever get, but I think this [pilot announcement] is really just breaking the seal,” says Tipson, who notes that this is the first time the de Blasio administration has acknowledged that gentrification must be managed at the school level, and not just through housing policy.
The school integration debate will only intensify in New York City, where gentrification and school overcrowding are both growing issues. This past May, the New York City Council passed a new law known as the School Diversity Accountability Act that requires the city to annually publish detailed student demographic data and make clear what steps it has taken to advance school integration. The first report generated by the new law will be published at the end of December.
“I think the pilot program is a good first step, and I hope more schools will do it, but I also agree that in a city with 1,700 schools we have a lot more steps to take,” says City Council member Brad Landers, a co-sponsor of The School Diversity Accountability Act. “We have to keep pushing forward, and the most important and most immediate next steps need to be moving towards district-wide diversity.”
Julie Zuckerman, a principal at Castle Bridge, a Washington Heights-based elementary school participating in the diversity pilot, says when she first founded Castle Bridge six years ago, nobody was interested in discussing integration. She tried to get the city’s permission to prioritize diversity in their admissions lottery, but officials were not supportive. Now under the pilot program, Castle Bridge will be able to ensure that at least 60 percent of its student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, and that the school educates at least 10 percent of kids with incarcerated parents.
Zuckerman says she also plans to build off the momentum from this pilot program to push for district-wide solutions. She currently serves alongside a half dozen other principals on a city superintendents’ advisory panel, where she intends to make the issue a priority.
“This [pilot] is not even a drop in the bucket, and yet it’s the first acknowledgement by the city that it doesn’t have to be the tail wagging the dog on gentrification,” she says. “Let’s harness gentrification instead of being determined by it.”
The seven schools in the pilot program all happen to be progressive schools—that is, institutions that test innovative, often experiential curricula in ways that appeal to middle-class parents. Though many of the progressive schools started out with diverse student populations, teachers and administrators say they have recognized that their school demographics have started to shift in recent years, as more affluent families apply, and poorer families find they can no longer afford to live in the city.
Jia Lee, a teacher at The Earth School, another diversity pilot participant, notes that over the last few years, her school has grown “much more white and middle class” and that it no longer feels “reflective of the community.” She says the school’s new set-aside policy, which will reserve 45 percent of its seats for low-income students, will help ensure that their school can educate a diverse student body in the years to come.
ONE OF THE BIGGEST POLITICAL CHALLENGES for advocates of district-wide controlled choice is garnering support from parents who send, or intend to send, their children to public schools that already have mostly white and affluent students. Last month, de Blasio told Chalkbeat NY: “You have to respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area oftentimes because of a specific school.” In effect, he suggested that given the investments parents have already made to send their kids to certain schools, it would be wrong to try and modify those institutions after the fact.
His comments immediately garnered pushback. “Is it not disrespectful, in fact, to tell low-income families that they can’t go to a certain school because they couldn’t buy a several million-dollar co-op?” wrote Donna Nevel, a local educator and activist in an open letter published in The Huffington Post.
Experts say that the set-aside policies will work to prevent more schools from “slipping”—a term used to denote formerly diverse schools that have become heavily gentrified. If fewer schools “slip,” then there may be less political opposition to larger, systemic policy change.
Dao Tran, a parent of a third grader at Castle Bridge, says that while she doesn’t believe desegregation is something that can be solved school by school, she thinks advocates “have to start by showing certain integrated models that work.” In that sense, Tran believes the success of this pilot program could help to persuade skeptical parents.
“To me, these are all steps along the way, and I agree if we just stopped with this pilot then we have not done anywhere near enough,” says Landers, of the City Council. In a statement, the city’s education department also said the pilot program “remains one piece of a larger effort” to expand diversity across city schools.
The next step, advocates say, will be building a political consensus behind real change.
“It’s almost easier to talk about police brutality than it is to talk about school integration,” says Landers, noting that a swirl of of guilt, resignation, parents’ concerns for their own kids, and racism all work together to make school segregation a tough issue for people to reckon with.
But Ujju Aggarwal, a New York City education researcher and activist, voices optimism. In her 15 years in the district, Aggarwal says she has never seen school integration discussed so broadly until now.
“What’s increasingly clear is that this city has to take a stand respond to the crisis of inequality and segregation that is particularly pronounced in our education system,” she says. “I’m hopeful that with the increased visibility of this issue the city will respond in a more systemic way.”