New York Times Op-Ed: "What Would It Take to Integrate Our Schools?"

New York Times Op-Ed: "What Would It Take to Integrate Our Schools?"

Orignially published in the New York Times, December 15, 2015

By Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres 

Even though we may believe that “separate but equal” public schools are inherently unequal, we haven’t been prepared to do much about it. In recent years, we’ve rarely even talked about it.

But over the past year, as the nation’s attention has turned to issues of racial justice, we’ve at least resumed the conversation. Powerful episodes of public radio’s “This American Life” (“This Problem We All Live With”) called attention to an attempt at integration in St. Louis, featuring the high school Michael Brown attended, and to a much more successful effort in Hartford.

An eye-opening study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, woke us up to the finding that New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country — and more segregated than they were a decade ago. This fall, rezoning proposals in Brooklyn and on the Upper West Side raised hard questions about race, class, segregation and gentrification.

Six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, we are realizing that a deep injustice we imagined had been addressed is still very much with us. More than half of New York City’s public schools are over 90 percent black and Latino. Meanwhile, many of the best-regarded public elementary schools are getting whiter.

Few conversations are harder to have. Some mix of guilt, resignation, concern about our kids, racism and a desire not to talk about it leads to a powerful denial of reality.

Proposals for school integration often confront stiff resistance. Some comes from white parents, who have purchased homes or rented apartments near a highly rated neighborhood school. But some also comes from minority parents, who love their neighborhood school, fear that changes will take it away, or suspect they are being told their schools — or their kids — are inferior.

Still, we know that segregated schools belie the promise of public education and American democracy. And we know that diverse schools raise test scores and help kids learn to live in an increasingly multicultural world.

That’s why we worked with parents and educators to pass the New York City School Diversity Accountability Act. The law, which could be a model for other school districts, will require the city’s Department of Education to release detailed data annually on school demographics across many categories, and outline the actions the city is taking to promote diverse schools citywide.

And last month, we were glad to see the current schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, allow seven city schools to establish admissions policies that allow for more diverse student bodies, using legally permissible approaches that prioritize English-language learners, low-income students and children in the foster-care system or who have an incarcerated parent. This was a good first step, but in a system with 1,800 schools, far more is needed.

The next step should be to plan for integration at the districtwide level, using a policy known as “controlled choice” (a terrible name for a good policy).

Rather than assign students to a zoned neighborhood school, controlled choice allows parents to rank their school preferences across a district — and then uses a computer algorithm to balance those choices to achieve a diverse mix of students in each school. The mix can be based on a variety of socio-economic, academic and geographic categories that the Supreme Court has ruled are permissible.

Controlled-choice policies are helping to integrate schools from Cambridge, Mass., to San Jose, Calif. Each policy is tailored to meet local goals. The system in Champaign, Ill., factors in single-parent households and the parents’ education level. In Raleigh, N.C., where an economic integration plan is in place, test scores are rising and 90 percent of students are reading at or above grade level.

Here in New York City, parent leaders elected to the “community education councils” in several community school districts are leading the push for controlled choice. The elementary schools in District 1 (the Lower East Side) and the middle schools in District 13 (Brooklyn Heights/Fort Greene) are already “unzoned” — they allow choice, but with no accounting for diversity — so they are a great place to start.

The New York City Department of Education should seize this moment. To get there, it can use funds from a New York State grant program designed to increase integration — created by the former New York State education commissioner John King before he left for the United States Department of Education.

In addition to controlled choice, districts can pair or cluster existing segregated schools, make high school admissions more diverse and link school admissions policies to “fair housing” strategies for more diverse communities. The United States Department of Education’s guidance on efforts to promote integration and the work of the National Coalition on School Diversity provide a road map.

In New York City, with a real commitment, we could double the number of public school students in diverse schools over the next decade. With leadership from John King and President Obama, the United States could set a similar goal.

Even then, we’d still be left with many segregated schools. But we would be moving forward to address a grave injustice. And by showing that diverse schools work, we will build support for even more — both here and across the country.

The first New York City School Diversity Accountability Act report is due at the end of this month. For the sake of our kids, our communities and our democracy, we hope it outlines a real plan for action.

 

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