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Op-Ed: 60 Years After Brown: New York is the New Mississippi (Albany Times Union)

By Donna Lieberman

Sixty years ago this Saturday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Yet equal education for all children in New York remains a dream deferred.

The 60th anniversary of Brown comes on the heels of a grim study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project finding that New York has the most segregated public schools in the country, with the greatest segregation in school districts in upstate New York. Racial isolation is so pronounced in some schools that the study refers to them as “apartheid schools.”

Racial isolation in and of itself is harmful to children.

Moreover, there are enormous disparities in the educational resources available to students in predominantly black and Latino schools, such as certified teachers, computers and remedial services. Unsurprisingly, students in these under-resourced schools perform worse on virtually every measure of student performance starting with third-grade reading tests. After more than a decade of No Child Left Behind, the graduation rate for white students is a shocking 28 percentage points higher than for black and Latino students.

Compounding the state’s stunning level of segregation, harsh and discriminatory discipline practices are pushing black children out of school. No studies show that black students are more disruptive than their peers. Nonetheless, across the state, skin color is a better predictor of whether a child will be subject to suspension, summons or arrest than his or her infraction, which can be as minor as writing on a desk.

Black students are suspended at rates far higher than their enrollment in school districts from Albany to Utica to Long Island. In New York City, between 2011-2013, more than 90% of school arrests targeted black and Latino students, a rate 20 percentage points higher than the national average. Students who are suspended or arrested are in turn far more likely to drop out. After that, the future is bleak: a black man without a diploma has a nearly 70% chance of being imprisoned by his mid-thirties, according to a recent report.

It’s long past time for all deliberate speed in New York. The anniversary of Brown must serve as a wake-up call for every policymaker in the state that we must act quickly and boldly to provide equal education for children of color.

Our political leaders have spent a great deal of time on evaluation measures for teachers and children, but we need to start evaluating policymakers themselves on their progress in addressing racial disparity. State leaders must consider multiple pathways to equality, such as inter-district solutions, an overhaul of the current system of school funding that will ensure adequate resources for all schools, and remedies for patterns of housing segregation that go hand-in-hand with school segregation.

It’s also time to end the travesty that our state human rights law doesn’t protect kids from discrimination in school.

Furthermore, we must end the unnecessary and destructive regime of zero tolerance discipline. Recent guidelines by the Obama administration called on schools to implement alternatives to arrests and suspensions, and in New York City, Mayor de Blasio has made discipline reform a priority. The state must also take on this issue. It has the means to promote positive disciplinary interventions — including mental health and social work services — that are proven to work while keeping kids in schools.

Sixty years after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown, state leaders must address the stark racial inequalities in public education. Otherwise New York can be called the new Mississippi.

Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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