New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s task force on school desegregation aims to solve a problem that doesn’t exist by eliminating much of what does work in the city’s troubled public-school system, while failing to address its many shortcomings. The scheme would provoke bitter social discord and further reduce the relatively small number of white students in the system. On the upside, it would undoubtedly accelerate the critical engagement of Gotham’s growing but politically reticent Asian-immigrant community.
The School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG), appointed by de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, has called for repopulating each of the city’s 1,800 public schools to mirror the ethnic makeup of the city at large within ten years. The SDAG report recommends the elimination of ability and performance screening for pupils, and condemns “attendance & punctuality” metrics as “exclusionary” against “Black and Latinx applicants.”
The plan reflects the stated goal of both de Blasio and Carranza: a totally “desegregated” school system. But it is breathtakingly unmindful of the social, cultural, and political complexities of New York. Of course, given de Blasio’s penchant for promising grand slams as he plays small ball, the scheme could just as easily be sitting in a dust-covered City Hall filing cabinet when the mayor leaves office at the end of 2021. It has already drawn opposition from city council speaker Corey Johnson, a potential 2021 mayoral candidate and, most significantly, from United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew. Mulgrew’s stance could be enough to kill the proposal—and it deserves to die.
Conceptually, the report reflects official mayoral school policy since Carranza’s arrival. It condemns what it terms racial imbalances in city schools even as it ignores the system’s myriad classroom failures. Those inadequacies were underscored again last week, when state tests revealed that more than half of the system’s third-graders lack proficiency in either math or reading. Operationally, the report is truly radical. It proposes to “desegregate” the system by dismantling the imperfect yet intricately evolved network of enrichment programs and performance screenings that offer pathways for parents and pupils through otherwise forbidding educational landscapes. And though it does not address the contentious matter of the city’s competitive-entry high schools—that’s a matter for Albany to decide—the effect of its recommendations would be to restrict severely the supply of highly qualified freshmen those schools need to continue in their current role.
De Blasio, Carranza, and the diversity panel embrace the oft-repeated but rarely examined assertion that New York City runs the nation’s “most segregated” public-school system. That could be true in some abstract sense—but it is also far and away the nation’s largest, most lavishly funded, and most socially ambitious system, as well. It has no peers, in other words. Practically speaking, it has never been clear what “most segregated” means in a school system that is barely 15 percent white. True, many schools in the system—“apartheid” schools, as some rhetorically irresponsible officials would have it—are 90 percent black or Latino. But when the entire school system itself is 70 percent black or Latino, why would concentrated nonwhite student bodies be especially surprising?
As a political foil, of course, the presence of a white cohort—presumptively privileged and prosperous—allows the city’s leaders to excuse the system’s persistent underperformance. All the goodies flow to the few, while minorities get short shrift. That the city’s virtually all-minority—and actually underfunded—charter schools are among New York’s best-performing is a standing rebuke to that notion, which is one reason the establishment hates them so much.
The emergence of a new ethnic presence—vigorous and overperforming, but nonwhite and largely poor—has stripped away most of the rhetorical armor educrats use to defend themselves. Asian students—now 15 percent of the system’s ethnic composition, and growing—consistently fare better than whites on standardized tests. They occupy many of the seats of the system’s gifted-and-talented programs, and they dominate most of the selective-entry high schools.
The undeniable success of mostly immigrant Asian children, like the persistently over-performing charter schools, might be taken as a laboratory opportunity by the Department of Education. Is there anything there to be studied, embraced, and replicated for the betterment of the system as a whole? Carranza and the diversity panel apparently see Asian success as a threat, not an opportunity. The report lumps Asian students in with whites, to be sliced and diced as the department moves to homogenize the schools ethnically, paying scant attention to performance, culture, or community.
No reasonable person would argue that the city’s schools should be exempt from change. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg and his first schools chancellor, Joel Klein, triggered their share of earthquakes—largely to positive effect, it should be added. But to undertake what de Blasio’s panel proposes—without any demonstration that significant segregation even exists in New York, and oblivious to the realities of daily life in a complex metropolis—beggars the imagination.
De Blasio may proceed with this program, but his successor will inherit the damages—just as the city will have to live with them. Better to toss the plan in that dusty file cabinet right now, and be done with it.
Photo: Seth Barron