the segregation situation

Is reversing school segregation possible in New York City? Expert panel weighs in

Two of Dougco parent Meredith Massar's daughters join friends in a "peaceful protest" outside the Douglas County Public Schools administration building Thursday.

A panel at the Brooklyn Historical Society Wednesday night tackled the thorny issue of school diversity, sparking a conversation about whether integration is a viable option and delving into the causes of school segregation in New York City.

“We want to get to the bottom of this,” said moderator Beth Fertig, who covers the city’s public schools for WNYC, after reminding the crowd that a report released last year found that New York’s schools are among the most segregated in the country.

But with school segregation — and the country’s largest school system — there are no simple answers. Panelists discussed the nuances of racial versus socioeconomic segregation and argued about whether magnet schools or changes to enrollment policies could be workable, long-term solutions.

The panel comes at a time when school segregation has garnered attention in New York, following a UCLA study that detailed how the the state’s schools are deeply divided along racial lines. The report found that in 19 of New York City’s 32 community school districts, 10 percent or less of public-school students were white in 2010.

The event, which drew a large audience, started with a foundational question: What causes school segregation?

Panelists disagreed about whether the issue is best understood as divisions along socioeconomic or racial lines. Socioeconomic segregation is the best way to frame the issue, said Clara Hemphill, the founder of Insideschools, a website that offers reviews of the city’s public schools. Hemphill said that concentrated poverty is the largest challenge to a school’s academic performance.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times Magazine who has spent years covering school segregation, argued that the issue at hand is race. Black, middle-income Americans are more likely than poor white children to live in poor neighborhoods, which means black children are more likely to attend high-poverty schools, she said.

“This is a racialized poverty,” Hannah-Jones said. “I think sometimes we are more comfortable with class-based [segregation] because we feel we can transcend our class and you can’t transcend your race, but these two are absolutely linked.”

Craig Gurian, a civil rights lawyer, pointed to a map of the city, color-coded to show where low percentages of black residents lived in blue and areas with high percentages of black residents live in red. The map revealed clusters of each color but little overlap.

“Even though you can’t go 10 minutes in New York City without hearing how diverse the city is, it’s actually residentially an extraordinarily segregated place,” Gurian said. “And where you have segregated housing you have segregated schools.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña also faced criticism over their slow response to integration plans proposed by a dozen individual schools last year, an issue Chalkbeat highlighted earlier this month. Both officials were asked about the delays, and whether they have plans to promote diversity, on the first day of school.

Fertig paraphrased their responses: “In other words, no solution,” she said.

Panelists themselves were split over whether there are feasible ways to combat school segregation. Some panelists offered magnet schools as a potential tool. But Hannah-Jones said that when she talks and writes about segregation, “I never end on a hopeful message.”

“If you are in a city with one of the most progressive mayors in the country, and we are under the Obama administration, and they will not talk about school integration and segregation,” Hannah-Jones asked, “what really hope does one have that we’re going to see any large-scale change for the masses?”

Norm Fruchter, a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and a member of the Panel for Educational Policy, noted that he plans to introduce a proposal at the next PEP meeting that he hopes will be “a beginning discussion” about how the city could boost school diversity.

The proposal is to strike a footnote in city rules that says race may be considered in school enrollment decisions only by court order. Fruchter also said he favors setting aside a certain percentage of seats in each high school for students with disabilities, English language learners, and over-the-counter students, who enroll outside of the traditional admissions process.

He acknowledged that enrollment changes aimed at distributing the city’s neediest students are more difficult to implement in middle and elementary schools, Fruchter said, since a family’s address plays a large role in determining younger children’s school assignments.

“I can’t figure out how you would do this below the high school level,” he said.

At the end of the discussion, Fertig asked the crowd whether they believed integration should have been on the education agenda that Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined in a high-profile speech earlier on Wednesday. The mayor’s plan includes expanding access to Advanced Placement classes, adding reading specialists to elementary schools, and providing computer science instruction in all schools.

One parent raised her hand to raise a different point: The battle that matters most to black and Hispanic families is not whether their children’s schools are segregated, but whether they have access to the resources they need.

“Parents of color have thrown up their hands,” she said, then directed her comments at white members of the audience and panel.

“Segregation is not our conversation,” she said. “This is y’alls conversation.”

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

Breakaway districts

Memphis-Shelby County spotlighted in national report on school district secession

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

The 2014 exodus of six suburban towns from the newly consolidated Memphis school system is one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class, says a new report.

The Shelby County towns are among 47 that have seceded from large school districts nationally since 2000. Another nine, including the town of Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., are actively pursuing separation, according to the report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality.

EdBuild researchers said the growing trend toward school secession is cementing segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.

And Shelby County is among the worst examples, they say.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

After the 2014 pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve worked to build their school systems from the ground up.

The report says Tennessee’s law is among the most permissive of the 30 states that allow some communities to secede from larger school districts. It allows a municipality with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

PHOTO: EdBuild
States that don’t prohibit secession from school districts are shaded in blue.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities. This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”

The Shelby County pullout is known in Memphis as the “de-merger,” which happened one year after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the suburban county district known as Legacy Shelby County Schools. The massive changes occurred as a result of a series of chess moves that began in 2010 after voters elected a Republican supermajority in Tennessee for the first time in history.

Under the new political climate, Shelby County’s mostly white and more affluent suburbs sought to establish a special school district that could have stopped countywide funding from flowing to the mostly black and lower income Memphis district. In a preemptive strike, the city’s school board surrendered its charter and Memphians voted soon after to consolidate the city and county districts. The suburbs — frustrated over becoming a partner in a consolidated school system they didn’t vote for — soon convinced the legislature to change a state law allowing them to break away and form their own districts, which they did.

Terry Roland, a Shelby County commissioner who supported the pullouts, said the secession wasn’t about race, but about having local control and creating better opportunities for students in their communities. “There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don’t have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime,” Roland told Chalkbeat on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller.”

The report asserts that money was at the root of the pullouts. Through taxes raised at the countywide level, suburban residents were financially supporting Memphis City Schools. The effort to create a special school district was aimed at raising funds that would stay with suburban schools and potentially doing away with a shared countywide property tax, which would have been disastrous for the Memphis district.

"These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result."Rebecca Sibilia, CEO, EdBuild

“What we’re talking about here is the notion of people pulling out of a tax base that’s for the public good,” Sibilia said. “That’s akin to saying you’re not going to pay taxes for a library because you’re not going to use it. … You can see this as racially motivated, but we found it was motivated much more by socioeconomics.”

The report asserts that funding new smaller districts is inefficient and wasteful.

The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on the larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students), according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more per pupil on administrative costs.

Under Tennessee’s current law, Sibilia believes the Shelby County de-merger is only the first of more secessions to come. She notes that Tennessee’s law is similar to one in Alabama, where a fourth of the nation’s secessions have occurred. Already in Chattanooga, residents of Signal Mountain are in their second year of studying whether to leave the Hamilton County Department of Education.

“There’s a direct link between very permissive policies and the number of communities that take advantage of them,” Sibilia said. “These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result.”

Editor’s note: Details about the merger-demerger have been added to this version of the story.