First Person

How to desegregate New York City’s schools. Now.

While the de Blasio administration stalls on school desegregation, New York City students suffer.

The 1966 Coleman Report — widely considered the most important piece of education research of the 20th century — showed that the success of low-income students is tied to whether they attend school with wealthier kids, whose advantages benefit all. Yet a 2016 study showed that nearly all of New York’s black and Hispanic students attend schools where the majority of students are poor. Other research has shown that this isolation isn’t inevitable: many schools are poorer and more racially segregated than their neighborhoods.

This racialized concentration of school poverty creates a persistent achievement gap, and it must stop. Now.

Brown v. Board called for an end to publicly sanctioned school segregation in 1954, after all. The Coleman Report turned 50 years old this month. And while the issue has been growing in prominence recently, the mayor and Chancellor Carmen Fariña have paid scant attention. (Fariña recently called it “the elephant in the room,” as if no one else had noticed.) As City Councilman Brad Lander concluded, the city Department of Education has provided “nothing approaching systemic action or even a coherent plan.”

Before becoming a professor, I practiced desegregation law. I know that addressing this problem hasn’t always been pretty. But people know how to do this — and they’ve been doing it at least since the Brown decision.

So what should such a plan look like?

New York City needs a dedicated, professional staff of outreach workers, educators, demographers, lawyers, and planners who can assemble data and fan out across the city to engage the public. Parent involvement is key, but so is more general input, since all will benefit from desegregated schools.

They should consider all of the strategies available to address the problem. Some schools are already using “set-asides,” meaning they hold a portion of seats out from general enrollment lotteries so spots are assured for specialized populations like low-income students and those living in shelters. Broader “controlled choice” plans could help distribute high-needs students.

Many districts around the country simply change school attendance zones — even repeatedly — as population shifts dictate. (This is part of what the city is now looking to try on the Upper West Side.) Older children and siblings are often grandfathered in for their own and their parents’ convenience.

And while there are many reasons city officials might not want to try desegregating schools, legal concerns shouldn’t be one.

The Obama administration has released guidance suggesting many permissible routes to integrate schools that have all been vetted to avoid race-based legal entanglements. One option is using permissible proxies for race, like income and residence. But the door also remains open — if only a bit — to consider race and ethnicity outright.

Parents Involved, the last Supreme Court case on K-12 voluntary integration, contains a concurrence by Justice Kennedy that provides for the possibility of districts creating race-based integration plans. Changes in the Court’s makeup over the next several years may further improve the chances of progressive challenges to the status quo.

It would thus not only be foolhardy but wrong to assume that legal impediments will forestall efforts at racial desegregation.

All of this can be done in a way that is sensitive to families’ needs. In New York City, elementary, middle, and high schools need to be considered separately, given their different enrollment systems and transportation considerations. The final look of schools’ integration numbers will vary, too, from neighborhood to neighborhood and across district lines. And considerations of diversity should not be confined to race and income but extend to students’ multitude of ethnicities, languages, and special needs. Desegregation is no longer black and white; set quotas an impossibility.

Squarely facing the political realities of desegregation is a tall order for any administration. Mayor Michael Bloomberg ignored the opportunity, and Mayor de Blasio has thus far squandered it. But putting off the issue is irresponsible and a disservice to the people of New York.

It is time for the mayor to proclaim, “Desegregation now. Desegregation forever.”

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.