City moves to delete contentious footnote in admissions rules that limits role of race

The city schools chief paved the way Tuesday for the removal of a contentious footnote in the city’s admissions code, which had been criticized for potentially blocking efforts to create more diverse schools.

In agreeing to begin the process of deleting the footnote, Chancellor Carmen Fariña bowed to pressure from advocates for school integration who argued that the line misinterpreted a Supreme Court ruling on admissions policies. They insisted that the footnote, which forbids the use of race in enrollment decisions except by court order, could deter schools from using perfectly legal methods to enroll a more diverse mix of students.

“My concern is the chilling effect that the footnote has on efforts to increase diversity and reduce segregation across the system,” said Norm Fruchter, a Panel for Educational Policy member who introduced the resolution to remove the line.

The footnote appears to spring from the city’s reading of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down two school districts’ admissions policies that factored in race. In an email to an advocate the following year, the city education department’s top lawyer wrote that the “Court’s decision made clear that consideration of the race of individual students in school admissions is unconstitutional.”

But advocates say the footnote is an overly restrictive and inaccurate summary of the ruling. They point to a 2011 memo on the ruling issued by the federal education and justice departments that says districts should first try “race-neutral approaches” to achieve school diversity, which could include considering students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. If those fail, then districts can consider students’ race along with other characteristics, the memo says.

The footnote could even discourage schools from pursuing admissions policies that don’t directly mention race, advocates worried. In the past, city officials have claimed that admissions policies that set aside some seats for low-income students or non-native English speakers amount to a “slippery slope” toward illegal policies, according to advocates. Recently, Fariña said she wanted to make sure that in their attempts to enroll more needy students, schools do not unintentionally “disenfranchise” other students.

The footnote is part of a much larger debate around diversity in New York City’s schools, which a 2014 report found to be among the most segregated in the country. Like his predecessors, Mayor Bill de Blasio has not made school integration a top education priority, dismaying advocates who had hoped his vow to combat inequality would extend to school segregation.

The resolution to remove the footnote was unanimously approved Tuesday by the education panel, an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor. Fariña accepted the panel’s recommendation, and now will create a new version of the admissions regulations that omits the footnote. After a public comment period, the panel will vote on and almost certainly approve the new regulations.

Meanwhile, nearly three dozen parent-leaders, educators, and other advocates have signed onto a letter urging the administration to replace the footnote with a line encouraging school districts to adopt policies that “promote diversity and reduce racial segregation.” An education department spokesman said Tuesday that the forthcoming revised regulations would not contain such a line, but that members of the public could suggest changes to the regulations during the comment period.