If Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown had been born a few years earlier, his schooling — and possibly his life — could have been very different.
Just four years before Brown was born, the Supreme Court decided a landmark case outlawing legally enforced segregation that coincidentally bears his name: Brown v. Board of Education. Against that backdrop, Brown’s hometown of Kingston, New York began efforts to integrate schools.
For Brown, then a preteen, that meant hopping on a bus that took him to a different school than his siblings attended. It was farther away from home, wealthier and whiter — and Brown, who is African American, thinks that made a big difference.
“I think the benefits are huge and lifelong,” Brown said. “It’s just easier working with people that you come in contact with throughout your life if you have a comfort level with people of different backgrounds.”
Now, Brown, a lawyer in Rochester, is determined to make sure students across New York state have the same opportunity today that he did some 50 years ago. Brown, along with the other members of the Board of Regents, has jumped into the fray around school integration.
The context, of course, is very different now. Brown’s education came at a time when the federal government and courts forced some districts to desegregate, but today’s push to integrate schools relies on communities to act voluntarily.
The Board of Regents is taking on school integration as part of its effort to rethink state education policy. It follows a period of transition, in which the board elected a new leader and shifted the policy focus away from test-based accountability that had dominated the previous several years. Now, the board is using the Every Student Succeeds Act to chart a new course for state education policy, and integration appears to be part of the mix.
Unlike Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose recent diversity plan notably avoids the word “segregation,” Brown said said he’s not afraid to use the word or tackle the problem.
“I think the biggest problems require us to address them head-on and segregation is a big problem. And diversity and segregation are not one in the same,” Brown said. “To talk about how much diversity you have can well be a distraction away from what needs to be done to promote integration.”
Brown and other board members frequently cite a study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project that found New York has the most segregated schools in the country. But they are still in the early stages of figuring out how their outrage will translate into policy.
As Brown pointed out, tackling integration is hardly new to the Board of Regents. The first black person elected to the Board of Regents was Dr. Kenneth Clark, whose psychology research testing children’s perceptions of race with white and black dolls was cited in the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Brown sees today’s Regents as continuing Clark’s work.
“It really was a significant position to carve out back then, but we’re still arguing for the same things today,” Brown said.
So how does Brown suggest the Regents tackle school integration today? It’s unclear what power the board has to integrate schools. Though the Regents set education policy, they do not control school funding nor do they draw district or school lines.
Brown was clear integration can’t be accomplished without help from other state entities like the governor and legislature. But he did suggest a few things the Regents may be able to do, while also noting that they are reaching out to experts to solicit ideas.
The Regents could design a metric to measure integration, he said. That’s something the board has floated before in the context of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which allows the state to come up with different ways to track a school’s progress.
The board also may be able to encourage districts that are close geographically but have significantly different student populations to work together, he said, or provide funding to those who want to promote integration, another measure state officials have taken in the past. For instance, former New York State Education Commissioner John King started a $25 million grant program to encourage integration.
Brown also took aim at New York City’s emphasis on the school choice process. While encouraging choice was good in concept, he said, it hasn’t panned out the way advocates had hoped. For instance, though students can apply to any high school in New York City, elite public high schools skim off the top-performing students, which are more often white and Asian, leaving few school options for a large swath of black and Hispanic students.
“If you give people a choice, then those kids in underperforming areas will be able to go to other schools. I understand that. But it hasn’t worked like that,” Brown said. “So to a significant extent, school choice has actually, for a significant period of time, it actually led to further segregation.”
Brown said he thinks the most effective change will come if districts voluntarily commit to integration and that the Regents’ first task is to convince districts that integration benefits all students — including white students from wealthier districts.
But desegregation has historically been a tough sell politically and, in some suburban and rural areas, would require transporting students across district lines. In those cases, Brown is still grappling with how far the Regents should push reluctant districts, but suggested that the courts may have to get involved.
“It may well be that court intervention is going to be necessary if other means don’t work,” Brown said.
Most notably, Brown says he now sees integration as core to the entire Regents agenda and their effort to narrow the achievement gap, in which black and Hispanic students typically perform worse than their white and Asian peers. Without integration, Brown said he is unconvinced the rest of the Regents’ work will have an impact.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see the closing of those gaps unless we meaningfully confront the problems of segregation,” Brown said. “You can’t separate the two.”