room for improvement

Digging into details of mayor’s diversity plan, critics see easy goals and iffy approaches

PHOTO: IntegratNYC4Me
New York City students called for school integration at a rally at City Hall in May 2017.

After waiting for almost a year, integration advocates finally learned what New York City plans to do about its severe school segregation. They were largely unimpressed.

“The tone the plan took was, ‘We encourage people to do this from the bottom-up.’ But the time for encouragement is over,” said Shino Tanikawa, a Community Education Council member in District 2 who has worked on school integration issues. “It’s time to start doing this work.”

Josh Wallack, a deputy chancellor in the education department, said the city’s proposal, released Tuesday, is the beginning of “a more intense conversation.”

“We made some really concrete steps,” he said.

Among the city’s goals: increasing the number of students in schools that are racially representative of the city. But the city’s definition of “racially representative” raised eyebrows. While the city’s students are 70 percent black or Hispanic, the education department defines racially representative schools as those that enroll between 50 percent and 90 percent black and Hispanic students, which some advocates consider too low a bar.

Even if the city reaches its goal for reducing the number of “economically stratified” schools by 10 percent in the next five years, about 60 percent would remain segregated by income.

“The goals are negligible in comparison to the scale of the problem,” Emmaia Gelman, a District 3 parent who has worked on integration efforts, wrote in a comment on a Chalkbeat report.

Some elements of the plan call for doubling down on programs that have shown little impact so far. For example, the city is expanding test prep for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, and administering the exam in more underrepresented schools.

Both have been tried, and yet there has been virtually no change when it comes to admissions offers made to black and Hispanic students. The expansion of these programs “will neither improve outcomes — just as they have not in the past — nor do they represent a public acknowledgement that the SHSAT is not the mechanism by which merit can be fairly assessed,” Lazar Treschan, who has studied specialized high schools for the Community Service Society of New York, wrote in a statement. Nevertheless, he called the department’s plan an “important” first step.

It’s unclear whether other larger-scale plans, such as eliminating the “limited unscreened” admissions method at high schools, will spur desegregation. Limited unscreened schools give admissions priority to students who express interest by attending an open house or high school fair, a system that advantages families with more time and resources.

Advocates were anxious to see how the city’s creation a School Diversity Advisory group will play out. The city has said this group will evaluate the city’s proposals thus far, come up with recommendations and help lead community engagement efforts in districts that are already working on diversity issues. The group’s recommendations are nonbinding and its representatives were selected by the city.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, said the group could “have teeth.”

But Matt Gonzales, who leads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said its success will “ultimately depend on who else is in that group.”

Part of the group’s work will be to make recommendations for the “long-term governance structure” for school diversity work within the education department. Miriam Nunberg, a parent in District 15 who has worked to make middle school admissions more equitable, said that will be important to watch as the city moves forward.

“The biggest thing missing is high-level, administrative oversight [by someone] who is financially empowered and accountable,” she said.

Tanikawa said she had hoped to see a requirement that individual school districts come up with their own plans to create and support integration.

“I wish there was a bigger, stronger commitment,” she said. “I know the chancellor has said she doesn’t like to mandate, but there are many mandates on schools. I don’t see why this can’t be a mandate that allows for a bottom-up, community-driven process.”

Hebh Jamal, a student activist with IntegrateNYC4Me, wants students to have a greater say as the city continues its work.

“We understand the problem. We see it every day,” she said. We’re going to continue to advocate for exactly the type of ideal school system we want.”

Chalkbeat explains

How school desegregation efforts could change, or not, after DeVos’s move to scrap Obama-era guidance on race

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence in Miami.

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw guidance dealing with race in school admissions last week wasn’t just about colleges.

School districts across the country have grappled with how to integrate their schools, too. And one of the seven documents withdrawn by the education and justice departments offered a roadmap for districts looking to voluntarily integrate their elementary and secondary schools.

This move is important symbolically — particularly in light of a surge of discussions about the persistence of segregation in public schools. But it’s not likely to have far-reaching policy implications, since only a handful of districts voluntarily use race in school assignment decisions.

Here’s what we know about what this change might mean for K-12 schools. Keep in mind that the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has authored a number of the key affirmative action opinions, puts things in even more flux. Critics of affirmative action hope Kennedy’s replacement will join other conservative judges to further limit the consideration of race in state and local policies, including school admissions decisions.

What was this guidance?

What’s relevant to K-12 education is a 14-page Obama-era document that explained how school districts can attempt to racially integrate schools without getting into legal trouble. (The document was targeted at districts that wanted to adopt desegregation policies on their own, not districts bound by federal desegregation orders.) That’s what DeVos rescinded.

It offered advice for school districts looking to make policy changes to diversify schools. Districts should first consider factors like students’ neighborhood or poverty level. But, the guidance read, “if a school district determines that these types of approaches would be unworkable, it may consider using an individual student’s race as one factor among others.”

It’s hardly a push for wide-scale race-based policies, but it left some room to use race if districts find they had exhausted alternatives.

This guidance was necessary, some argue, because the Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue in a complex way. A 2007 case, Parents Involved v. Seattle School District, struck down Seattle’s school assignment plan for its reliance on race to make admissions decisions.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in a widely quoted passage of the opinion. But Kennedy, the key fifth justice in the majority, didn’t fully sign on to this — continuing to allow districts to use race as a factor, but not the sole one.

“A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population. Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered,” Kennedy wrote. “What the government is not permitted to do … is to classify every student on the basis of race and to assign each of them to schools based on that classification.”

The Bush administration issued its own interpretation of the ruling in 2008, encouraging school districts not to consider race, though it did not say that doing so was prohibited in all circumstances. By publishing a guide for using race in 2011, the Obama administration was offering practical help but also sending a message that its goals were different.  

Erica Frankenberg, a professor who studies K-12 desegregation at Penn State, said the user-friendly way the guide was written was part of the Obama administration’s strategy to encourage districts to integrate their schools.

Did any school districts use it?

According to recent research, 60 school districts in 25 states have school assignment policies meant to create more diverse schools. Of those, just 12 districts take race into account, rather than just socio-economic status. (Using socio-economic status isn’t affected by this debate about race-based admissions.)

But it’s hard to tell if the guidance was a deciding factor for any school districts.

“Even with the 2011 guidance in place, voluntary integration is still an incredibly complicated thing to do,” said Frankenberg. In addition to a plan being in compliance with the law, this approach require garnering political will and tackling logistics like transportation.

Why are some people concerned about it being rescinded?

The guidance represents the official viewpoint of the administration, but the underlying law hasn’t changed. It does mean that districts won’t have the backing of federal government when it comes to race-conscious integration policies. That might make districts using race more fearful of a lawsuit.

“This is a legal intimidation strategy from a very conservative administration that is really intent on not having race a part of decision making and policy,” said Liliana Garces, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race, law, and education.

The move to rescind the documents fall into set of decisions by the Department of Education to deprioritize voluntary desegregation. Last year, the department discontinued an Obama-era grant program that was intended to help schools increase socio-economic diversity. (According to The Atlantic, 26 districts had been interested in applying for integration grants before that program was scrapped by the DeVos administration.)

To no longer have [the guidances] as an official stance is certainly at the very least, a missed opportunity to use the bully pulpit,” said Frankenberg, who supports race-based integration efforts.

Others support the move, arguing that attempts to use race in public policy are unconstitutional.  

“Being opposed to racial preferences is not being against diversity, which is what the critics will claim: It’s simply being against discrimination,” Roger Clegg, of the anti-affirmative action Center for Equal Opportunity, told Education Week. “The federal government should not be going out of its way to encourage such discrimination.”

What does research say about school integration?

It’s found that low-income students and students of color benefit from racially integrated schools. One recent study found that graduation rates of black and Hispanic students fell modestly after the end of a court order mandating desegregation plans. Another study found that Palo Alto’s school integration program led to big boosts in college enrollment among students of color (though, surprisingly, also led to an uptick in arrests).

Research has also shown that income is not a good proxy for race when looking at academic outcomes — even when accounting for differences in family income, black students were substantially less likely to complete high school and enroll in college. Other research has shown that attempting to use income to integrate schools by race isn’t nearly as effective as using race directly.

sounding off

New Yorkers respond to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to overhaul admissions at elite but segregated specialized high schools

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to better integrate New York City’s specialized high schools was met with fierce pushback but also pledges of support after the mayor announced Saturday he would work to overhaul admissions at the elite schools.

The reaction foreshadows the battle that lies ahead if de Blasio is going to convince lawmakers to sign off a key piece of his plan.

Considered the Ivies of the city’s high school system, eight of the nine specialized high schools admit students based on the results of a single entrance exam (the remaining performing arts school requires an audition.) The most significant but controversial change de Blasio is proposing is to scrap the test in favor of a system that offers admission to top students at every middle school, which requires a change in state law for some of the specialized high schools.

Many alumni from those schools have fought fiercely to preserve the entrance exam requirement, worrying that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards.

Many made the familiar arguments that the city should instead focus on improving the quality of middle schools, or expand access to gifted programs, to serve as a feeder into top high schools.

Alumni who would like to see the Specialized High School Admissions Test remain in place likely have many lawmakers on their side. New York State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents several Queens neighborhoods, released a statement that she “couldn’t disagree more” with the mayor’s proposal.

The reaction also captured concerns about how the changes could impact Asian students, who make up a disproportionate share of enrollment at the specialized high schools. Those students are also likely to come from low-income families.

But others took to social media to support the mayor’s proposal. Specialized high schools have enrolled an increasingly shrinking share of black and Hispanic students: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

Some thanked the mayor for taking action after campaigning for years to make changes.

And not all alumni were against the changes. Also included in the mayor’s plan is an expansion of Discovery, a program that helps admit low-income students who just missed the cutoff score on the entrance exam.