Separate and Unequal

The Real Reasons New York has the Country’s Most Segregated Schools

New York schools are the most segregated in the country according to a new study, but blaming charter schools, which only serve 6% of city students, won’t fix the real problems.

Chris Hondros/Getty

New York City occupies a special place in the American consciousness as the tumultuous seat of our financial markets and the buzzing capital of our culture. Most importantly, it’s the city that exemplifies American pluralism, the “melting pot” that attracts new immigrants looking for work and college graduates drawn from their hometowns by the promise of excitement and diversity. So, when it turns out that the melting pot has the most segregated schools in the country, as a new study reports, it suggests that something has gone very wrong in our approach to education.

New York’s appeal hangs on its diversity and its image as a city where everyone can try, get, and be anything. But the new UCLA’s Civil Rights Project report shows that the city’s vaunted cosmopolitanism masks sharp divisions within its schools.

John Kucsera and Gary Orfield, the report’s authors, found that New York State has the nation’s most segregated public schools—dubiously led by the demographic patterns in New York City’s schools. They found that “over 90 percent of black students in the New York metro attended majority-minority schools—those with 50% or greater minority students.” Perhaps even more telling, around three-quarters of these students attended schools with student bodies that were at or above 90 percent minority students.

These sorts of figures would represent a shocking failure of educational equity wherever they occurred in the United States, but that they come from New York City? That’s news. School segregation is supposed to be a red state problem plaguing those sleepy hometowns—it hardly fits New York’s reputation as a global hub for diversity.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been sounding the alarm on the worrisome inequities hidden beneath the New York’s glowing facade. He was elected last fall after a campaign that focused on the “tale of two cities” and the growing gap between the city’s haves and have-nots, which all too often follow racial lines.

Indeed, racial segregation in New York is frequently accompanied by socioeconomic segregation. Across the state, the typical African-American student “attends a school where 69% of students are low-income.” For the typical Latino student, that number is 65 percent. For whites? Less than 30 percent.

What’s to be done? De Blasio has made universal pre-K the centerpiece of his mayoralty. There have historically been significant gaps between races where access to high-quality pre-K is concerned—closing that divide as early as possible has been a priority for the mayor.

De Blasio’s aim in pushing universal pre-K is to give all students an equal start. But ensuring universal access to quality early education doesn’t necessarily combat school segregation.

Think of it this way: if New York City’s K-12 system is highly segregated, there’s no reason to believe that a pre-K program providing an earlier start will break that pattern. Adding a (critical!) grade to the public education system might support better academic outcomes for minority students, but it probably won’t make the system less segregated if people continue attending schools in neighborhoods that are, themselves, segregated. As integration advocates have argued for years, improving equal opportunity in racially homogeneous schools is not equivalent to integration.

Skirting the question of whether academic performance can be improved without increasing integration, Kucsera and Orfield frame much of the report’s analysis in terms of school choice. As a result, many news outlets have focused on its findings on charter schools. They found that “100% of the Bronx charters, 90% of those in Brooklyn, and 97% of the Manhattan charters were intensely segregated.”

But that seems like a distraction. After all, critics never tire of noting that charters only serve a miniscule portion of NYC’s students—just 6 percent (and only 3 percent statewide). New York charters simply aren’t big enough to be the primary sources of segregation in state or city schools.

Kucsera and Orfield’s report puts choice on center stage in part because mandatory efforts to force integration—such as busing—are unlikely to gain political traction today. As a result, they suggest new desegregation efforts that link “choice” with “key civil rights standards, such as strong public information and outreach, free transportation, serious planning and training for successful diversity, authentic educational options worth choosing, and no admissions screening.”

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This approach, sometimes termed controlled choice,” is a hot topic lately in education policy circles (and in my own house). But it’s much easier to support in theory than in practice.

Here’s an example: The report lauds some charters for racial integration—such as Brooklyn Prospect Charter School. While BPCS gets good academic results and is more racially integrated than many New York City charters, it’s student body is relatively wealthy compared to other city schools. What’s more, its academic numbers are strong, but fall well behind some of New York’s less racially integrated charter schools (who frequently serve student populations with much higher rates of poverty).

Is the school’s racial integration laudable, despite the fact that its students, on average, come from a wealthier background relative to other city schools? Your mileage may vary, depending on your ideological priors.

This doesn’t settle the real issue the report highlights, however: even if racially homogeneous charters are providing African-American and Latino students in many of these neighborhoods with a better educational option than their alternative, the fact of their racial segregation can’t be ignored. The value of desegregation doesn’t solely lie in its connections to academic equity; it’s a civic value worth promoting and protecting under any circumstances.

But schools aren’t creating the segregation this study shows, though they may be contributing to it, they’re largely reflecting the social conditions in the larger city. New York’s segregated schools have more to do with real estate, zoning, and the pace and paths of gentrification—than with the structure of choice programs for education.

Famously, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, because the city’s such a unique, challenging bundle of energy and opportunity. If segregation can persist in New York’s schools, and exist alongside signs of academic progress, that’s not just a failure of education policy but a sign that there are even deeper social and economic issues that need to be addressed. For New Yorkers proud of their city’s reputation for diversity, it’s a disquieting sign that the Empire City is more like America’s provincial “anywheres” than they’d like to admit.