Diversity Delayed

Nearly a year after NYC principals float diversity plans, city has yet to sign off

Last October, the head of New York City’s school system met with a group of principals who were deeply concerned that their elementary schools might eventually contribute to the scourge of school segregation.

Many had watched as wealthier, mostly white families moved into fashionable precincts of Manhattan and Brooklyn and nabbed seats in the same handful of public schools, many of them celebrated for their strong academics and progressive bent. The principals feared that if that pattern persisted, their schools’ diversity would fade into homogeneity.

A few principals presented a solution: If the city let them reserve a portion of their seats for high-needs students, such as those from low-income families or who live in public housing, the schools could preserve — or in some cases, create — diverse student bodies. Chancellor Carmen Fariña and other top officials heard them out, then asked the principals to submit detailed proposals.

Nearly a year later, several of those principals said they have yet to receive an official response to their plans, much less permission to carry them out.

“We had the discussion, but then the system stayed the same,” said Principal Anna Allanbrook of the Brooklyn New School, which has seen its share of white students rise and black and Hispanic students decline over the past decade, like many of the 12 schools at the Oct. 1 meeting.

City officials say they are continuing to evaluate different ways to promote school diversity. But their slow pace and focus so far on making less-popular schools more attractive through marketing and specialized programs have dismayed advocates, who say that a meaningful integration plan requires changing admissions policies.

The city’s schools are among the country’s most segregated, and the share of black and Hispanic students attending schools with very few white students has risen over the past two decades — well before Mayor Bill de Blasio took office. The problem, like school segregation nationally, is linked to deep-rooted residential segregation. Its potential fixes raise thorny legal questions and the politically charged prospect of disrupting systems that enable white, middle-class students to cluster at top schools.

Despite those challenges, even some of de Blasio’s usual allies say they are growing impatient, and often evoke the mayor’s “tale of two cities” rhetoric when urging the city to attack school segregation. If the administration will not back a dozen schools with concrete plans to ensure diverse enrollments, the critics reason, then integration must not be a top priority.

“Don’t pretend you value diversity and then keep those 12 schools waiting indefinitely,” said City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who pushed through a resolution earlier this year calling on the education department to declare diversity a priority when setting policy.

“Most of the efforts to promote diversity have been at the grassroots level,” he added. The city, “far from supporting them, has been a stumbling block.”

Amid gentrification, schools hope to preserve diversity

The dozen schools are located in swiftly gentrifying neighborhoods, including Arts & Letters Academy in Fort Greene, P.S. 84 in Williamsburg, The Neighborhood School in Manhattan’s East Village, and Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights. Several of the schools are “unzoned,” allowing them to enroll students through a lottery system from outside their immediate surroundings.

With attractive programs, families from a mix of backgrounds who live nearby, and some enrollment flexibility, advocates say the schools are ideal settings to establish diverse student populations — which decades of research has shown to benefit all students academically and socially, with low-income students of color reaping the biggest rewards. In fact, the schools already are more diverse than many city elementary schools, which tend to be more segregated than middle and high schools because most admit students based on where they live.

The worry among advocates and people at those schools is that wealthier, mostly white students will continue to flock to those schools and crowd out others unless new checks are placed on the schools’ admissions.

“The problem is, you get this momentary instance of integration before the school starts flipping the other way,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group, New York Appleseed.

 
Data: NY State Education Department and NYC Department of Education, Credit: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

The schools’ solution — reserving a portion of seats for specific student groups — is modeled on the admissions system at P.S. 133 in Park Slope, which the previous administration allowed to set aside more than a third of its seats for low-income students and those still learning English.

Such set-asides only work under specific conditions. The schools must sit near concentrations of families of different economic classes, or be able to provide transportation to students who live farther away. Crucially, they must have strong reputations or sought-after programs that can draw middle-class families who are shopping around for schools, as well as the ability to recruit families with less wherewithal to snag in-demand seats.

People at several schools said parents back the set-aside plans. But if policies that effectively capped the share of middle-class students at any school were approved, it’s likely that some affluent families hoping to secure seats in those schools might push back.

“I imagine there would be some parents who would say, ‘Hey wait a minute, this isn’t fair,’” said Michele Greenberg, a parent and co-chair of the diversity committee at the Children’s School in Brooklyn, which is one of the schools seeking to reserve some seats for high-needs students.

Gravitating toward “magnet schools,” the city shies away from policy changes

Fariña and the other top officials at the 2014 meeting had their own ideas about how to cultivate diversity at the schools.

They suggested establishing attractive language or special education programs, after-school classes, or evening courses for adults as a way to pull in more families, according to an official summary of the meeting. The idea of enhancing schools in order to appeal to a mixture of families and generate diversity — advice that Fariña has often repeated — is a new spin on former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s emphasis on school choice and competition.

But most of the schools at the meeting had no trouble attracting families, with some receiving many applications for every open seat. Their focus was on managing the enrollment process to make sure their schools stayed diverse. That’s when the officials grew more hesitant, several principals said.

First, they said the schools would need to show how any admissions tweaks would “promote student learning,” and how they might affect other schools, according to the meeting summary. The officials also expressed concern that admissions policies that singled out certain student groups risked running afoul of federal law, the principals said.

“It felt like a cold bucket of water being thrown on us,” said John O’Reilly, principal of Brooklyn’s Arts & Letters Academy, which wants permission to reserve 40 percent of available seats for low-income students.

“The lawyer,” said Naomi Smith, principal of Central Park East II in East Harlem, “explained why each thing wasn’t possible.”

A footnote on race sparks a fierce debate

Last week, the debate over how far the city can legally go to achieve school diversity centered on a few words tucked into a footnote to some agency regulations.

The city has long insisted that school admissions policies cannot legally factor in students’ race. Schools, such as Brooklyn New School, and entire districts, such as Manhattan’s District 1, were forced to drop admissions policies over time that considered race alongside other characteristics.

Katie Lapham, a teacher in East New York, spoke about the importance of school diversity for her students and her daughter (pictured) at the Aug. 26 Panel for Educational Policy meeting.
Katie Lapham, a teacher in East New York, spoke about the importance of school diversity for her students and her daughter (pictured) at the Aug. 26 Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

Although the newer admissions proposals revolve around characteristics such as family income and language, city officials have called those factors a “slippery slope” that could lead to illegal policies, according to multiple advocates. Jim Devor, the former president of Brooklyn’s District 15 education council, said officials initially opposed P.S. 133’s set-asides for non-native English speakers because language status amounted to a racial category.

The issue flared up at a public meeting last week when the city’s Panel for Educational Policy approved updates to the city’s admissions regulations. Advocates who attended the meeting wanted the panel to remove the footnote, which says race may be considered in school enrollment decisions only by court order.

The line appears to stem from the city’s reading of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down two school districts’ admissions policies that factored in race. Michael Best, the city education department’s former general counsel, wrote in a 2008 email to an advocate that the “Court’s decision made clear that consideration of the race of individual students in school admissions is unconstitutional.”

But advocates say the ruling allows race to be used as one of multiple factors in admissions decisions. In a 2011 memo that discussed the ruling, the federal education and justice departments said districts should first try “race-neutral approaches” to achieve school diversity, which could include considering students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. If those fail, then districts can consider students’ race along with other characteristics, the memo says.

Norm Fruchter, an education researcher who serves on the policy panel, said during the meeting that he sensed the line in the city’s rules is “legally inaccurate and potentially damaging.” He proposed a review of the line, which the other panel members approved.

He also commended the de Blasio administration for hosting discussions on school diversity, such as the October 2014 meeting with the principals. But he noted that the principals have waited nearly a year for the city to respond to their requests.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I think this is too long,” Fruchter said. “What I fear is that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of how long discussions take with no action,” he added, to applause.

Fariña’s chief of staff, Ursulina Ramirez, said she agreed the diversity discussions were “taking probably longer than anticipated.” She promised to organize a meeting between advocates and officials to discuss the contested line as well as school diversity in general.

Education Department spokesman Harry Hartfield would not answer questions about the 2014 meeting or the status of the principals’ proposals. He also would not say whether the city is considering broader changes to school admissions or other policies in order to promote diversity.

“There are challenges associated with any possible change,” he said in a statement, “and it’s critical that every proposal be deliberate, thorough and designed with the input of educators, families, advocates, elected officials and community members.”

Proponents of diversity refuse to wait

While the city deliberates, integration proponents are moving forward with plans that could prod the administration into action.

In May, the City Council passed a law forcing the education department to report annually on school demographics and its efforts to increase diversity within schools. In a recent op-ed, Councilmen Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres, who have spearheaded the council’s school diversity drive, applauded de Blasio for signing that legislation, but added that with “a real commitment” the city would be able to double the number of students in integrated schools in five years.

Meanwhile, parents, educators, and the local education councils in a few school districts — including Manhattan’s District 1 and Brooklyn’s Districts 13 and 15 — are studying ways to create district-wide admissions systems that preserve parents’ ability to choose schools while preventing individual schools from enrolling a disproportionate amount of students from any one group.

David Goldsmith, president of District 13’s education council, said the district would use a state grant to host public planning sessions about school diversity. He said he was surprised de Blasio has not more aggressively pursued school integration, not only as a matter of civil rights, but also because it is a proven way to lift students’ academic performance.

A mechanic, he evoked the image of a car engine to argue that the administration’s other school-improvement efforts will fall short if it ignores segregation.

“If you don’t fix that big hole in the radiator, it will overheat,” he said, “no matter how much antifreeze you keep pouring in.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”