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Education panel meeting generates emotions but not action on school diversity

At the Panel for Educational Policy meeting Tuesday night, panel members vowed to continue pushing for school diversity while tabling a measure that would force the city to clarify its stance on using race in school admissions.

The question before the panel was whether to strike a footnote in the city’s regulations that has become a focal point of a larger conversation about the lack of racial diversity in most New York City schools. The 24-word footnote says race may be considered in school enrollment decisions only by court order — a legal interpretation that has been challenged by a number of prominent advocates.

On Tuesday, panel members said they needed to meet with more constituents and advocates before they could make an informed decision.

“People just wanted to give it more time,” said Norm Fruchter, the panel member who introduced the measure.

A meeting was supposed to take place Sept. 28 between panel members, city officials, and advocacy groups to discuss the issue, Fruchter said, but it was cancelled for a reason unknown to Fruchter.

The lack of attendees and panel members at Tuesday’s meeting, held on Staten Island, also warranted postponing the discussion, said Vanessa Leung, the panel’s policy chair. The Department of Education also said the absence of a number of panel members was key to tabling the proposal.

“Fostering diversity in our schools is a critical issue, and we look forward to having this discussion with the PEP next month when more panel members are able to attend,” department spokesman Harry Hartfield said. Only nine of the 13 panel members attended the meeting.

Diversity was front and center at the panel’s August meeting, when the board adopted updates to the admissions regulations, including the footnote in question.

The footnote implies the city believes involving race in school admissions is unconstitutional in most cases. Advocates contend that is a fundamental misreading of the law, which they say allows a district to consider race, along with other characteristics, if race-neutral approaches fail to produce diverse schools.

A number of schools have crafted their own plans to retain or boost diversity and are waiting on administrative approval. Meanwhile, Chancellor Carmen Fariña has voiced concerns about any plan that would give preference to one group over another, saying she wouldn’t want new policies to disenfranchise any students.

The tabled measure did not stop panel members from vowing, sometimes passionately, that diversity remains a top priority for them.

As panel member Lori Podvesker talked about the panel’s efforts to put “a lot of time and energy and heart and soul” into exploring diversity options, she was briefly at a loss for words.

“As a special ed person I can’t stress enough how important it is to me for students with disabilities to be part of this conversation,” Podvesker said, sparking cheers from the crowd, many of whom were parents of special-education students who came to express grievances to the panel.

Panel members promised that the footnote discussion would return.

“Tabling it doesn’t mean it’s going away,” Fruchter said. “It’s coming back, hopefully at the next meeting.”