Enough Talk. Time for Real Change on City’s Segregated Schools

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Last week the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) released its initial report with policy recommendations to the Mayor and Chancellor about how to integrate the city’s stubbornly segregated public schools.

As a member of SDAG, I have been part of the group’s discussion of complicated issues of race, class, and the ways that our schools, even in a city supposedly as progressive as ours, can reflect and perpetuate the worst aspects of our society to keep us separate and unequal.

It’s been 65 years since Brown vs. Board of education was settled, establishing that “separate but equal” education could never provide true equality. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson we still have not learned. We’ve found ways to cloak it: first it was tracking, and when that became out of favor, we come up with new terms, like “gifted and talented”, “specialized”, or “screened” to separate our young people and their schools.

As a result, a school system that has a broad distribution of races and ethnicities overall ends up with schools that are concentrated by race. New York City has the most segregated schools in the nation, and a range of publicly accepted rationales and explanations for it. Some blame the real estate market or teacher’s unions, other claim a lack of “grit” or character on the part of low-income families of color, and a certain class of grifter says that all we really need to do is privatize the schools, so they act like purer capitalist market mechanisms. None of these theories were backed by consistent evidence and research, although underlying each one is a special interest group with something to gain.

There are social justice allies of mine who claim that what we really need is equity, not integration. That black and brown communities should be able to have good public schools without integration. And of course, in theory, they are right. I’m sure there are terrific all-black schools in Ghana. But Ghana doesn’t have our history of systemic racism and oppression, and the lesson of Brown v. Board is that in a diverse society, segregated schools lead to segregated outcomes. In our plural society, the path toward equity begins with real integration.

This will require naming and dismantling the institutions that are part of the problem. For years, the term “school choice” has been peddled as a way to give all parents better options. You don’t have to attend your local school; rather, you can engage in a complicated process of learning about, ranking, and applying to a range of different schools. And I can understand how parents from communities with underperforming schools might see this as a rare chance to exercise power in a system that has given them so little.

However, strong local research has shown that the DOE’s choice regime actually exacerbates segregation, by creating a new set of administrative hoops that favor families with the resources and wherewithal to game and optimize the school application process.

But let’s get back the SDAG and its report, which does a comprehensive job of presenting the current system, how we got here, and the mechanisms that keep school segregated. And while I might have hoped to see recommendations for more immediate and bold actions, the report does a good job of presenting the public with the information that will allow for informed discussions about next steps. I am cautiously optimistic that the next report the group releases, after a series of outreach activities to discuss some of the key issues presented in the report—the challenges of zooming, screening, and inequitable distribution of resources—will be more specific, and more aggressive.

There are school districts within the current zoning regime that can diversify their schools immediately. And we’ve seen grassroots efforts in places like Brooklyn’s District 15, which encompasses Park Slope, Red Hook, and Sunset Park, where local parents and educators decided, on their own, to desegregate, principally by removing the screens that divided their schools by race.

To be sure, there are a handful of other districts that could easily make the same changes. Then there are other areas where the entire district is predominantly low-income black or Latino. Here is where we need to think bigger, including redrawing district lines. We also need to make massive investments in these schools to make up for the range of resources they lack in comparison to schools in richer areas: that can mean paid summer internships for every student, enhanced college and career advising, and supports for extracurricular activities.

We’ve talked about school segregation for long enough. It’s time for real change. I am glad to be a part of the Mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group, but I am reminded that the only real desegregation efforts in United States history have come through court action. I am hopeful that this effort will be different.

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