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To Fix Segregation in Schools, We Must Understand How We Got Here

segregation desegregation diversity in schools
Mrs. Claire Cumberbatch, leader of the Bedford-Stuyvesant group protesting segregated schools, leads the oath of allegiance in 1958

Thursday marks the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that declared legally mandated segregation in schools unconstitutional. But in New York City, and in schools across the country, segregation remains an entrenched and intractable problem.

To grapple with the reality of school segregation, we must understand that segregation in schools, housing and otherwise – was intentional. According to acclaimed scholar and activist, Distinguished Professor of Education, Pedro Noguera, “maintaining racially segregated schools by law or social convention was practiced widely throughout US and premised on the notion that racially inferior children should be educated separately.”

Decades of government backed housing segregation policies have helped lead to a perpetual cycle of inequality in which segregated housing leads to segregated schools which leads to unequal educational opportunities which leads to disparities in income which leads to segregated housing. People of color, and specifically black Americans, have been systemically and structurally denied the ability to accumulate wealth, choose their neighborhoods, and have equal access to public resources and accommodations. Thus, the cycle of discrimination and disadvantage is not purely a function of social accident but was fostered and promoted by government policies and law.

Since the 2014 UCLA Civil Rights Project’s report exposed New York’s intense school segregation, there have been numerous policies and proposals aimed at addressing the problem and intense opposition to all of them.  A recent viral video of parents in Manhattan’s School District 3 vociferously opposing a proposal projected to reduce inequities in the district’s middle school admissions process is just the latest addition. District 3’s schools are among the most racially segregated in New York City and the city’s schools are among the most segregated in the country. In a city known for its diverse population and inclusive values, there is a serious gap between our stated values and the reality of our school system.

To grapple with the reality of school segregation, we must understand that segregation in schools, housing and otherwise – was intentional.

New York City’s new schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, told the New York Post that “institutions and systems – like the public school systems – also have a role to play to make sure we’re not creating either intentional or unintentional obstacles to allowing all students access.”  

District 3 is attempting to play this role. Currently, students who score higher on state English language arts and mathematics tests have a better chance of being admitted to the middle school of their choice. The current proposal would set aside 25 percent of seats in each school for students who apply but who scored lower on the state tests.

Because the law makes it difficult to explicitly use race to achieve integration, school districts are forced to use proxies. Some of these have included housing status, socioeconomic status, free and reduced priced lunch and, now, test scores. All of these have shortcomings. They can stigmatize kids, families, and communities by reinforcing harmful beliefs about race, ability and achievement.

But, performance on standardized tests is not about a student’s intelligence or deservedness. The amount of money parents invest in tutoring for their children to perform well on these tests underscores this reality. While standardized tests are billed as a way to measure students’ academic abilities, research shows they actually most closely predict a students’ socioeconomic level, making them an effective proxy for race in New York City.

Relying on test scores in this way is far from a perfect solution. As a District 3 parent, recognizing the risks in utilizing this proxy, I am still encouraged by the attempt to address inequities. As an organizer for the NYCLU, I am not just invested in my daughter’s educational success, but in the equity of our entire system. This proposal is a small step, yet it has still been met with parent backlash. In fact, parent backlash has defeated or limited previous attempts to address school segregation in this district. I hope Chancellor Carranza’s support of District 3 is just the beginning.

In order to tackle segregation, we have to confront the fact that giving students equal access to quality education isn’t an act of charity, it is essential to help rectify decades of public policy designed to disadvantage black Americans and other people of color. As District 3, and other districts across the city, take steps to address inequities, the Department of Education’s School Diversity Advisory Group will make recommendations later this year.  

The chancellor must take these recommendations seriously.

As for parents, we can do our part by seeing the value of our children’s education not by the amount of opportunity we can hoard for ourselves, but by our commitment to an education system that is truly equitable.

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