Unequal Education in New York 60 Years after Brown

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

May 2014 is the sixtieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.  This was a landmark case in which the Court declared laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional.  The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which allowed state-sponsored segregation in public education.  The Court's unanimous (9–0) decision stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Many proponents of integration believed that public education in the United States – especially grades K-12 – would eventually be integrated.  Their expectations were never realized.  The promise of the Brown decision remains unfulfilled today.

Two Schools

In 1992, I took part in a video entitled “Unequal Education” that highlighted the vast differences in resources between two junior high schools in the Bronx.  One was located in the middle class Riverdale section.  The other was in the South Bronx, in the poorest congressional district in the country.

Unlike at the Riverdale school, there were many uncertified teachers in the South Bronx school.  This was especially true in the crucial subjects of math and science.  People were teaching courses in subjects where they had no educational background – phys. ed. teachers teaching science classes.

It will come as no surprise that the overwhelming numbers of students in the Riverdale school were white, while the students in the South Bronx school were black and Latino.  In a recent New York Times story, a national report on education found that only 7 percent of black senior high school students were proficient in math and 15 percent in reading.  The corresponding numbers for Latinos were 11 percent and 22 percent.

A report by the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. determined that “New York City (is) home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.”

Charter schools, once held out as an antidote to the problem of school segregation, are actually making the problem worse.  A few students have the opportunity to opt out of public schools for charters, leaving the overwhelming number of other students with substandard education.  The idea that “school choice” will solve unequal education is a myth.

Policy Choices

Segregated schooling is abetted by policies that affect student admissions at the city’s specialized high schools and at CUNY’s senior colleges.  Among the eight highest rated high schools in the city, only 11 percent of students are black and Latino, despite the fact that over 70 percent of all public high school students are black and Latino.  This is the result of the use of a single, never validated, admissions exam. 

This situation is made much worse by the test prep industry, which charges thousands of dollars to families who can afford to boost the chances of their children for access to top high schools.  Even the prep course for the gifted and talented class of four year-olds now costs $1,700.  Again, low-income students are left behind as the playing field is tilted toward children from families with higher incomes.

The Community Service Society (CSS) published a report last October on the city’s specialized high schools, “The Meaning of Merit: Alternatives for Determining Admission to New York City’s Specialized High Schools.”  It revealed that other highly rated public schools around the country use a combination of factors in deciding on admissions – grades, class rank, exams, teacher recommendations – never one factor alone.

At CUNY’s senior colleges, the number of black and Latino students has plummeted since the recent recession, pushed out by white and Asian students seeking a lower cost college education.  CUNY, which does not have an affirmative action program, relies on the SAT exam for admissions even though this test is increasingly out of favor at many colleges today. 

As the demand for CUNY increased, its senior colleges raised their minimum SAT requirements and began to enroll fewer students.  As a result, beginning in 2009, the racial makeup of CUNY colleges changed significantly.  In CUNY’s top tier colleges, black freshmen fell from 16 percent in 2001 to 8 percent in 2010; Latinos from 18 percent to 11 percent.

Besides concentrating on changing admissions policies at CUNY and specialized high schools, the city should be expanding it options for those students who do not intend to go to college.  One area of promise is Career and Technical Education (CTE). 

A February 2014 CSS report, “Challenging Traditional Expectations,” revealed that those students in CTE high schools, particularly new schools, which are smaller and more high tech, see strong boosts in graduation rates.  This is particularly true for black and Latino male students, the cohort whose graduation rates are lowest in non-CTE high schools.

There has been a great deal of public discussion of the problem of income inequality lately, both nationally and in the city.  Mayor de Blasio ran a campaign that highlighted this situation.  Income inequality is directly linked to unequal education.  The public education system doesn’t serve all our communities well.  The new administration has made a good start with universal pre-K.  More work will be needed for the system to be reflective of the Brown decision.

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