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Testimony on School Segregation in New York City Schools

Testimony of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union Before 
The New York City Council Committee on Education and Committee on Civil and Human Rights
Joint Hearing on School Segregation in New York City Schools

The New York Civil Liberties Union (“NYCLU”) and the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) respectfully submit the following testimony on school segregation in New York City schools. We would like to thank the Committee on Education and Committee on Civil and Human Rights for giving us the opportunity to provide testimony today on this important topic and the proposed legislation.

School segregation is an urgent civil rights issue. The 2014 report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, New York State’s Extreme School Segregation, states “New York’s record on school segregation by race and poverty is dismal now and has been for a very long time… A great center of American liberalism, New York seemed to turn away when race issues came close to home.” Indeed, it is time for New York to take bold and concrete action to meaningfully and purposely integrate our schools.

  1. Introduction

The NYCLU, the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization with nine offices across New York state and more than 210,000 members and supporters. The NYCLU’s mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles, rights, and constitutional values embodied in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York, with particular attention to addressing the pervasive and persistent harms of racism. Protecting and expanding students’ rights is a core component of our mission, and through our Youth and Students’ Rights program the NYCLU advocates for equitable access to quality education for all students.

The ACLU is a nationwide, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with nearly 2 million members dedicated to the principles of liberty and equality embodied in the Constitution and this nation’s civil rights laws. In support of these principles, the ACLU has appeared both as direct counsel and amicus curiae in numerous cases addressing educational equity, desegregation, and the defense of affirmative action and programs that increase diversity in schools, including Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (Fisher II), 136 S. Ct. 2198 (2016), Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, 572 U.S. 291 (2014), Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978), and Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

The NYCLU’s history is rich with a breadth of successful work aimed at protecting and advancing the right to an equitable and quality education, notably efforts to desegregate schools, protect First Amendment rights, eliminate discrimination and bias, reduce the use of exclusionary discipline and law enforcement, reduce reliance on high-stakes tests, resist efforts to divert public money to private institutions and interests, and advocate for comprehensive sex education.

The NYCLU has always recognized that education is a cornerstone of democracy. As such, we believe education should be publicly funded and accountable, provide school environments that are safe, supportive and dignifying for all students, rooted in pedagogy that promotes critical thinking and is factually accurate, age-appropriate and free from bias, create equitable opportunities for all students, and promote relationship- and community-building.

  1. School Segregation in New York City

We have yet to undo the intentional racial stratification created by of generations of government-backed segregation policies, which have fostered a cycle of discrimination and disadvantage. As a result, schools in New York City are among the most segregated in the entire country.

Forty-five percent of all neighborhood elementary schools in New York City are more than 90 percent black and Latino.[2] One in eight NYC kindergarten classes is racially homogenous, meaning 90 percent or more of the students are of the same race or ethnicity.[3] And, according to a 2014 study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, 73% of charter schools across New York City were considered “apartheid schools” in which less than 1% of the students were white.[4]

Brown v. Board of Education concluded that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal, and despite Civil Rights-era victories in the movement to integrate schools, the last several decades have seen the broad re-segregation of our nation’s schools. Expiration of consent decrees mandating integration, strategic disinvestment in Black and brown neighborhoods, funneling of public dollars to private institutions, and gentrification all contribute to continued separate and unequal education.

Segregation aims not just to maintain physical separation, but to isolate people of color from power, opportunity, and the ability to fully and equally participate in the democratic process. Consider that, although white students comprise just 15 percent of the New York City public school population, sixty percent of white students attend schools where white students are more than double their system-wide percentage.[5]

These schools are disproportionately better resourced than schools serving students of color in racially isolated schools. It is, therefore, no accident that students of color who attend racially isolated schools have lower academic outcomes, lower graduation rates, and are less likely to graduate from college.[6]

And though the majority in Brown v. Board of Education focused heavily on the benefits of school integration for Black students, there is substantial evidence of the benefits to all children. Engagement with people of different races in schools is associated with lower levels of prejudice, better prepares students to live and work in diverse communities, improves critical thinking skills and academic achievement, and improves outcomes such as graduation rates and future income level.[7] The Brown court recognized that education “is the very foundation of good citizenship.”[8]

These positive effects are not only felt in schools, but also in communities – children who attend integrated schools bring fewer racial stereotypes into their eventual workplaces, and integrated schools have higher levels of parental involvement. Students who attend diverse schools are more civically engaged, thus positively contributing to our democracy.[9]

Racially integrated schools are our best opportunity to break the cycle of purposeful discrimination and disadvantage. Even though the systems that created it— including discriminatory housing and economic practices—extends beyond the Department of Education (“DOE”), segregation today is perpetuated and worsened by the failure to implement and maintain deliberate system-wide policies to integrate the schools.[10] The DOE has, therefore, an urgent obligation to act decisively to remedy the segregation in its school system.

The process of integration must address and undo the institutional, cultural, and pedagogical policies and practices that were built to create and maintain racial stratification. Meaningful and purposeful school integration goes beyond placing students of different races/ethnicities, ability or performance in school with one another.

The pursuit of physical desegregation alone is insufficient to deeply integrate cultures, values, and lived experiences. In addition, it is insufficient to build the public and political will to create an education system that is designed to equitably include, value, and support the growth and development of all students, families and communities.

  1. New York City’s Specialized High Schools

While New York City’s specialized high schools serve only a small fraction of students in the system, the opportunity to attend one must be open to all capable students in the city, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. There are many barriers, however, that block high-potential students from accessing the life-changing opportunities that the Specialized High Schools offer, and as a result of those barriers, the schools do not represent the diversity of New York City.

One very small step taken by the administration was to expand the Discovery Program, an attempt to slightly increase the opportunities for students from low-income families who attend under-resourced middle schools to make it into the Specialized High Schools.

To qualify, students must meet several factors– they must score right below the cut off for the Specialized High School Admissions Test (“SHSAT”), come from an economically disadvantaged household, be recommended by their school, attend a middle school that has a student body that is also economically disadvantaged, and be willing and able to complete a summer preparation course. The expansion of the Discovery Program would gradually set aside 20% of seats for these students.

Recently, a California-based law firm challenged the expansion of the Discovery Program, in a case called Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School PTO, et al. v. Bill de Blasio, et al. The plaintiffs in the case claim that the expansion of the Discovery Program amounts to intentional discrimination against Asian-American students, who currently make up the majority of enrollment at the Specialized High Schools.

The NYCLU, ACLU Racial Justice Program, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and LatinoJustice have just asked the Court to allow us to join the City in defending its efforts to expand access to the specialized high schools. Defending this expansion is critical for encouraging more steps to ensure diversity and equity in all New York schools.

New York City schools are some of the most segregated in the country and the City’s effort to expand access to the Specialized High Schools is just a small step to address the extreme racial segregation and disparities in our public schools. Expanding the Discovery Program so that more disadvantaged students can attend the Specialized High Schools is both laudable and entirely legal.

The changes do not discriminate against any particular racial or ethnic group. By reserving seats for low-income students who attend disadvantaged middle schools, the program will enable low-income students of all races to have a chance at admittance and will increase the racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and geographic diversity in the Specialized High Schools.

In the absence of a change in New York State law that would allow the Specialized High Schools to implement a fairer and more educationally-sound admissions policy—one that does not rely entirely on a single, standardized test—the Discovery Program is one of the City’s only ways to address the stark racial disparities in admission to the Specialized High Schools.

It’s important that the Council recognizes the Discovery Program expansion for what it is: a single step. We must not only enable more equitable access to the top schools in the City, but also continue tirelessly fighting to promote diversity and equality in our public schools across the board.

High-stakes testing often has the effect of excluding otherwise qualified candidates from excellent schools across the City, contributing to the lack of diversity in these schools. At the same time, it is important that we as a city stand behind this step, to show that we expect our leaders to do more, and to become bolder, to integrate schools.

  1. City Council Introductions on School Segregation

Overall, the NYCLU supports the City Council’s efforts to address segregation in NYC’s schools and accordingly, we support most of the proposed introductions and resolutions. However, many of the proposals have distant timelines, which do not serve this urgent issue and seem to have overlapping purposes. We would caution the Council against creating multiple, redundant oversight bodies unless absolutely necessary and ensure that the resources on this issue are highly targeted and put towards concrete actions to desegregate and integrate NYC schools.

Introduction 4276

            Introduction 4276 would create a “specialized high school task force” to address the racial and ethnic inequalities in the student bodies of the eight test-based specialized high schools. The task force would include representatives from the DOE, teachers, students, parents, and experts in certain subject matters. It would meet monthly and hold quarterly public hearings and would submit a report on its findings regarding “alternative admissions criteria for the specialized high schools.”

While the NYCLU supports the creation of this task force and efforts to change the admissions processes at the Specialized High Schools, there may be considerable overlap with the existing School Diversity Advisory Group. We recommend that the Council to consider whether there is significant difference in these bodies, in mandate and composition, to necessitate separate entities.

We would also urge the inclusion of legal and civil rights advocates to the composition of the task force to bring a valuable perspective and expertise to the discussion. In addition, the NYCLU is concerned that the report will not be issued until September 2020, because further delay will prolong the inequities that currently exist in the Specialized High schools.

Introduction 4277

           Introduction 4277 would require the DOE to report on the demographics of its school staff including gender, race and ethnicity, length of employment at the school, years of experience, and their highest degree earned. The NYCLU supports this bill and welcomes increased transparency into the makeup of the teaching force in our schools.

Studies have shown that having a teacher who shares the same racial or ethnic background as their students can improve academic achievement.[11] It is important to understand the current makeup of the DOE’s school staff in order to determinate how to increase the diversity of our teaching force and best support students.

Introduction 4278

          Introduction 4278 would require the DOE to report more robust student demographic data, including data about individual grade levels. This intro would also require the DOE to report demographic information about charter schools and “special programs” including gifted and talented programs, language programs, and any programs with specific admissions criteria including screened programs.

The NYCLU supports this introduction as this increased transparency will help families understand the demographics of each school at a more granular level and help the DOE and the public analyze whether special programs lead to increased or diminished diversity.

Introduction 4279

         Introduction 4279 would mandate the creation of working groups in each community school district “to review and make recommendations to foster and increase school diversity.” The working groups would be comprised of teachers, principals, parents, students, a representative of the community education council (“CEC”), the superintendent, a representative of the DOE, and will be co-facilitated by a community-based organization that is focused on “multicultural education, diversity, or equity and justice.”

Each working group will meet monthly, hold quarterly public hearings, and submit a report to the mayor, chancellor, and the speaker of the council. While the NYCLU supports the creation of these working groups and efforts to increase diversity in each community school district, there may be overlap and conflict with the work that some community education councils have already undertaken in the area of diversity. In particular, CECs 1, 3, and 15 have already created their own community-developed diversity plans. It is unclear how the mandate of this introduction will comport with the pre-existing efforts of those communities and others.

Further, the NYCLU is concerned that the reports will not be issued until September 2020, because further delay will prolong the inequities that exist across the city. Finally, it is unclear what will happen to the recommendations put forth by the working group beyond being submitted to the mayor, including whether CECs will implement them or will have to undertake a separate process to put them into effect, which would add further delay.

This introduction may, however, prompt action on desegregation from communities that have not yet attempted to tackle this issue. We recommend the Council undertake an inquiry into a more targeted approach, perhaps taking into account the leadership and experience of the CECs who are already tackling this work locally.

Introduction 4281

         Introduction 4281 would codify the existing School Diversity Advisory Group. The bill would specify the makeup of the 23-member group, require it to meet quarterly and hold five annual hearings, and prepare a report with recommendations. The recommendations must address the setting of racial and socio-economic diversity goals, changes in funding formulas to address inequity, school climate, and restorative justice, among other topics. An important requirement of this introduction is that the DOE will have to indicate which recommendations it does not intend to implement and reasons why and, for any recommendations it intends to implement, it must indicate a timeframe.

The NYCLU supports the codification of the existing School Diversity Advisory Group, particularly given that the DOE will have to formally respond to the recommendations put forth by the group, adding a level of accountability. However, similar to many of the other proposals, the NYCLU is concerned about the extended timeline for the report (December 1, 2020) and the potential overlap with the other proposed working group.

Introduction 0949

           Introduction 0949 would amend the NYC Charter to create a school diversity monitor within the NYC Human Rights Commission. The monitor will identify how the DOE’s own data can best support its integration efforts, develop professional development in culturally responsive education, secure additional funding for this training, ensure translation for IEPs, and “monitor racial and socio-economic segregation in schools and make recommendations to alleviate disparate impact discrimination.”

The NYCLU supports the creation of a school diversity monitor within the NYC Human Rights Commission and believes that the monitor could serve as an important counter-balance to the DOE’s narrative on school integration, offering new information and recommendations about the causes of continued segregation.

Resolution 0196

           Resolution 0196 calls on the New York State Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign a bill that would change the admissions criteria for the eight Specialized High Schools that use a single test for admissions, replacing it with an admissions system based on multiple measures of achievement.

The NYCLU supports this resolution. The reliance on high-stakes testing for admissions into the Specialized High Schools is maintaining a segregated system. The NYCLU recommends that the DOE eliminate the SHSAT as the sole criterion for admission to these high schools and round out the application to include other measures.

Resolution 0417

Resolution 0417 calls upon the DOE to create more district Gifted and Talented (“G&T”) programs and classes. The NYCLU does not support the creation of additional G&T programs unless the admissions procedures for those programs are significantly changed. The admissions system for G&T perpetuates segregation within the DOE system by relying on a standardized test administered to four-year-olds.

Prior to the 2007-2008 school year, Community School Districts were able to utilize a holistic system for evaluating admissions including teacher evaluations, classroom observations, and in-district exam scores. That year, the DOE eliminated the holistic admissions model and instead required children to achieve an exam score in the top 10% nationally. This change coincided with a significant drop in minority representation in G&T programs, from 31 percent black students in 2007 to 13 percent black students in 2008.[12]

Currently, more than 70 percent of students in G&T programs are white or Asian.[13] Again, this clear racial segregation is unacceptable. The NYCLU recommends that the DOE limit the use of high-stakes testing, particularly among four-year-olds, and devise an admissions system for G&T programs that will promote diversity and desegregation.

  1. Recommendations

            In addition to our recommendations with regard to the introductions and resolutions considered by Council committees today, the NYCLU recommends the following to increase integration and bolster school desegregation across the DOE:   

  • Many middle and high schools have competitive admissions screening methods, based on academic performance and other factors, which we believe can contribute to school segregation. We recommend you hold a hearing on admissions screens to explore their impact on integration efforts;
  • Meaningful school integration requires bold action and it is important to identify early on the impact of existing diversity and integration goals. We recommend you track and report progress towards the DOE’s existing diversity goals by individual Community School Districts in an easily comprehensible format; 
  • Current school integration efforts require consistent, long-term funding in order to yield measurable results. We recommend you ensure that the education budget includes adequate funding for culturally responsive education and Community School District school integration efforts.

VII.     Conclusion

We thank the New York City Council Committee on Education and Committee on Civil and Human Rights for considering this testimony and look forward to working together to promote equitable learning environments for all New York City students.


[1] Research and drafting by Toni Smith-Thompson and Stefanie Coyle.

[2] Clara Hemphill and Nicole Mader, Segregated Schools in Integrated Neighborhoods: The city’s schools are even more divided than our housing, available at 

[3]  Elizabeth Harris, Racial Segregation in New York Schools Begins in Pre-K, Report Finds, N.Y. TIMES, Sept. 20, 2016, 

[4]  John Kucsera and Gary Orfield, New York State’s Extreme School Segregation: Inequality, Inaction, and a Damaged Future, UCLA Civil Rights Project, March 2014, p. viii, available at

[5] New York City Department of Education Demographic Snapshot, 2017-2018,

[6] Brief of 553 Social Scientists as Amici Curiae in Support of Respondents, at 6-12, Parents Involved in Cmty. Schs. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, et al., 551 U.S. 701 (2007) (Nos. 05-908, 05-915).

[7] Id.

[8] Brown v. Board of Educ. of Topeka, Shawnee Cnty., KS, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954).

[9] Id.

[10] John Kucsera and Gary Orfield, New York State’s Extreme School Segregation: Inequality, Inaction, and a Damaged Future, UCLA Civil Rights Project, March 2014, pp. 19-24 available at

[11] Monica Disare, How diverse is the teaching force in your district? A new analysis highlights the gap between students and teachers of color, Chalkbeat, Jan. 8, 2018,

[12] Elissa Gootman and Robert Gebeloff, Fewer Children Entering Gifted Programs, N.Y. TIMES, Oct. 29, 2008, available at; see also Elissa Gootman and Robert Gebeloff, Gifted Programs in the City Are Less Diverse, N.Y. TIMES, June 19, 2008, available at

[13] Philissa Cramer, As New York City makes limited change to gifted programs, the regular admissions process yields predictable results, Chalkbeat, April 16, 2019, available at; see also Amy Zimmer and Nigel Chiwaya, See How Racial Segregation Persists at Gifted and Talented Programs, September 29, 2015, available at


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