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De Blasio official touts school choice as a solution to segregation, echoing Bloomberg

The city is more focused on giving students good schools to choose from than trying to desegregate the school system, a top education department official suggested Monday.

“It is our job to make sure that all of our schools are clearly running well,” Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson said before a panel discussion on school segregation, and to “make sure that you can go to any school that you want.”

Combined with recent remarks by the schools chief and Mayor Bill de Blasio, the latest comments indicate that the de Blasio administration views school diversity as a worthy goal but one less urgent and attainable than boosting the quality of schools that are segregated.

Coming from Gibson, a former deputy under the previous chancellor, the comments also highlighted a remarkable feature of de Blasio’s stance on school diversity: its similarity to that of his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While de Blasio has been sharply critical of many of Bloomberg’s signature education policies, he has continued his predecessor’s emphasis on school quality — and in some cases, school choice — over diversity.

Critics who consider the idea of a high-performing but highly segregated school system unrealistic have grown increasingly wary of the overlap between de Blasio and Bloomberg on the issue of integration.

City Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Democrat like de Blasio, said during Monday’s panel that school quality and diversity are “inextricably bound together.” He added that there are many steps the city could take to reduce school segregation, which he had expected a left-leaning mayor to pursue in a way his more conservative predecessor had not.

“What could be more progressive than confronting racial segregation?” he said. Noting that de Blasio has invested heavily in creating more affordable housing, he added, “I wish the city could put as much energy into preserving diverse classrooms as we are into preserving diverse housing units.”

De Blasio has faced mounting pressure to address school diversity, which was the subject of a City Council bill earlier this year and a flashpoint in recent debates over school rezonings. In response, he and top education officials have insisted that school segregation is largely a product of deeply entrenched housing patterns that cannot be overcome simply through new school zones or enrollment policies.

Instead, individual schools can foster diversity by offering programs that attract a mix of families, exposing their students to peers from different backgrounds through “sister school” partnerships, and by teaching students about other cultures, the officials have said. If the city were to take a more active role in ensuring that schools enroll a greater mix of students, that could prompt a backlash from some parents, officials have suggested.

“We’ll never do anything without community input,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said at an unrelated press conference Monday when asked about the administration’s plans around desegregation. Otherwise, “if you mandate something, that then will cause a revolution and people might strike,” she said, citing a children’s book about sheep who go on strike.

Considering the extent of segregation in New York City — where the share of black and Hispanic students attending schools with very few white students has risen over the past two decades — officials have argued that their efforts should go into enhancing the instruction and services in schools rather than shifting their enrollments.

The Bloomberg administration took a similar stance. Bloomberg’s long-serving schools chief, Joel Klein, said that a “focus on high-quality education for every kid in every school I think is the way,” not “a focus on racial balance.” His successor, Dennis Walcott, said he was “focused on having high-quality schools in all neighborhoods,” which he called “the ultimate civil rights policy.”

Gibson, who was deputy chancellor for access and equity under Walcott, said Monday that the city should strive for diverse schools. But when that is not possible, the city should ensure “that children have an opportunity to excel in the schools where they are.”

She also echoed a defining doctrine of the Bloomberg administration: that school choice offers all students an equal opportunity to attend good schools. In particular, she suggested that an enrollment system that allows students to apply to high schools and some middle schools outside of their own neighborhoods can help them dodge schools in high-poverty areas that might be overburdened with needy students.

“You can live in the Bronx and go to school in Manhattan,” she said. “You don’t have to go to the school across the street.”

That argument does not address elementary schools, which tend to be the most segregated because admissions are based on students’ addresses, nor the city’s elite “specialized” high schools, which base admissions on test scores and enroll very few black and Hispanic students.

Researchers have also challenged the idea that school choice benefits all students equally. Wealthier families tend to have access to information and networks that help them find the best schools, while poorer families often opt for local schools that are low-performing but more familiar, said Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation who studies school segregation.

“To think that choice on its own is really going to produce outcomes that help our most vulnerable students have better options is really risky,” she said.

Monday’s panel at the Brooklyn Law School was hosted by the group NYC Collaborates, a partnership between the city education department and the New York City Charter Center, which receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat also receives financial support from the Gates Foundation.)