By Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — During the tenure of Governor George Pataki, racial segregation in New York State’s public schools has deepened, with the number of schools with mostly black and Latino children increasing dramatically. At the same time, the educational opportunities of children attending these predominantly minority schools have differed starkly from those provided to children attending predominantly white schools. And while Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made educational reform a cornerstone of his administration, Mr. Pataki, with the able assistance of State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, has committed himself to a course of action that spells doom for black and Hispanic children across New York State.
New York is a state of white schools on the one hand and black and Latino schools on the other, with nearly four of out of five of the state’s primary and secondary schools being either more than 80 percent white (“low minority” as labeled by the New York State Education Department) or more than 80 percent minority (“high minority”). Since Mr. Pataki became Governor, the number of high-minority statewide schools has risen over 20%, with the number of high-minority schools outside New York City having jumped 50%. According to a report published by Harvard University in January, New York now ranks number one in the country on five of six measures of school segregation for African-Americans and Latinos (and ranks second on the sixth measure).
As New York’s black and Latino school children have become more isolated in high-minority schools over the last eight years, the Education Department repeatedly has warned Governor Pataki and the New York State Legislature that inferior educational resources available to children in high-minority schools are leading to those students performing far worse than children attending the state’s predominantly white schools.
For instance, the most recent annual report from the Education Department observes, “Consider these contrasts between low- and high-minority schools. Schools with the highest percentages of minority children -- who are frequently also poor -- have the least experienced teachers, the most teachers teaching out of certification, the lowest salaried teachers, and the highest rates of teacher turnover.” The report then ties these differences to huge scoring gaps between high-minority schools and low-minority schools on the standardized tests administered by the state to elementary and middle-school students. On the most recently reported 4th grade English language arts test, for example, 74% of students in low-minority schools met or exceeded state standards as compared to 38% of students in high-minority schools.
As one would expect, these gaps culminate in widespread disparities in high school students taking and passing Regents tests, which now are required to obtain a diploma under New York’s recently adopted “high-stakes testing” regime. For instance, according to the most recent State Education Department report, while 82% of eligible students in low-minority schools took and passed the Regents English exam, only 35% of students in high-minority schools did so.
And these figures underreport the Regents disparity, since they do not count all of the thousands of students dropping out in anticipation of having to take tests for which they are wholly unprepared. Indeed, the gulf between the graduation rates of low-minority and high-minority schools is huge and widening, with affluent white schools enjoying graduation rates of close to 100% while poor, high-minority schools have fewer than half of their ninth graders graduating four years later.
Grim as these statistics are, one can only truly appreciate New York’s educational apartheid by visiting predominantly minority schools in the Bronx, in Hempstead or Wyandanch on Long Island, or in Rochester and then by crossing over into nearby districts with white schools like Chappaqua in Westchester County, Garden City on Long Island, or Pittsford outside Rochester. One set of schools, with almost all black and Latino students, features overcrowded classrooms and dilapidated buildings, outdated or nonexistent textbooks, science “laboratories” that are remnants from a bygone era, and dispirited students far more likely to be dropping out than thinking about college. By any measure, these are failing schools. The other set of schools, with almost entirely white student bodies, often enjoys state-of-the-art academic and extracurricular programs and facilities, libraries loaded with the latest in technology and materials, and students headed to elite colleges.
Achieving some semblance of racial equality in New York’s public schools is feasible. First and foremost, the State must get serious about bringing educational resources to failing, high-minority schools. Though “local control” long has been a central tenet of the New York State school system, the State itself has the ultimate legal responsibility for assuring that children receive an adequate and equitable education. Fixing failing schools must start with an aggressive school-based program in which the State directly intervenes and assures that children in these schools will have the teachers, curricular materials, and facilities necessary for a decent -- indeed, quality -- education. And the State should revamp its education financing system, which results in high-minority schools being chronically deprived of needed financial resources.
During the considerable time it would take to fix failing schools, the State should allow students to enroll outside their districts so that high-quality public schools are not the exclusive domain of children living in affluent, white districts. In addition, the State needs to reconsider its rigid insistence on high-stakes Regents tests as a condition of graduation. Beyond the broader controversy of whether these tests are educationally sound, inflexible imposition of them on schools where children do not receive the education needed to have any chance of passing the tests is simply driving students away from a diploma and out of school.
Rather than pursue any of these reforms, Governor Pataki’s response to the plight of children in failing, high-minority schools has been to have the Attorney General fight off lawsuits by advocates trying to help these children. And the Governor’s pending budget proposal to slash over $1 billion from the state’s financial contribution to local school districts would seriously harm high-minority schools that already are struggling with insufficient resources.
Educating a large and diverse population is a hugely complex task, and reasonable people can disagree about many aspects of this enterprise. It is unconscionable, however, that in New York State black and Hispanic children are increasingly segregated and increasingly left behind.
Christopher Dunn is the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Donna Lieberman is the NYCLU’s Executive Director.