calling for backup

Educators on front line of desegregation debate say city must take the lead

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Michelle Baptiste (center), a second-grade teacher at P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, is running for a spot on the union's executive board.

Confronting one of the nation’s most segregated school systems, New York City’s schools chief recently said she is searching for ways to alleviate the problem “organically,” without mandating changes.

But that approach won’t suffice, several educators and parents said during a discussion Tuesday at the Brooklyn Historical Society. With enrollment policies and parent choices together fueling a system where more than half of schools qualify as severely segregated, they suggested that small-scale remedies that rely on local buy-in will fall short.

“The segregation wasn’t organic, and the integration is not going to be organic either,” said Jill Bloomberg, the principal of Park Slope Collegiate, a grade 6-12 school in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn where many schools remain racially isolated.

Michelle Baptiste, a teacher at P.S. 92 in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, put it more bluntly.

“I don’t think that we can look to the Department of Education,” she told the crowd. “They haven’t taken any leadership.”

The relatively rare public criticism of the education department by employees reflects the frustration felt by some educators — and some parents and advocates — who had hoped that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s emphasis on social justice would spur aggressive action on school segregation. Instead, Fariña has only recently started to call school diversity a top priority, and her most significant initiative on that front has been signing off on diversity plans at seven schools.

The comments also highlighted a tension in the de Blasio administration’s approach to integration: Officials are seeking solutions that entire communities will embrace, yet middle-class parents have long demonstrated that they will staunchly oppose changes that limit their access to sought-after schools.

In practice, that has meant that the city recently backed enrollment changes designed to promote diversity at the seven schools that developed their own plans, but postponed a zoning change on the Upper West Side that was fiercely resisted by some parents. To advocates, the backlash there and in response to a similar rezoning proposal in Brooklyn made clear that more widespread integration will only happen if the city forcefully pushes for it.

“The DOE needs to be the one to take responsibility for this,” said Miriam Nunberg, a Park Slope Collegiate parent who co-founded a group that is trying to reform the District 15 middle school admissions process. “Asking different communities to be responsible for integrating schools on a case-by-case basis is not going to work.”

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones moderated the panel.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones moderated the panel.

The panel, part of a series of talks titled, “Why New York? Our Segregated Schools Epidemic,” was moderated by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times Magazine who has reported extensively on school segregation. Her child attends P.S. 307, which was at the center of the Brooklyn rezoning debate last fall. (Her husband, Faraji Hannah-Jones, is co-president of P.S. 307’s parent-teacher association and was on the panel.)

She started the talk by offering some sobering statistics: While about 70 percent of students citywide are black or Hispanic, those groups make up over 90 percent of the population at more than half of city schools, according to a 2012 Times analysis. Meanwhile, half of the city’s white students are concentrated in just 7 percent of schools, DNAinfo found.

The panelists laid the blame partly on the city and partly on individual parents.

Some middle-class parents choose to cluster at popular schools that enroll more white students and fewer poor students than the city average. But parents make those decisions within a system of zone lines, school-choice policies, and selective schools that ends up sorting students from different backgrounds into different schools.

“You have a lot of parents who want to do the right thing, who want to enroll their kids in integrated schools,” Nikole Hannah-Jones said, “but the choices of schools are very minimal.”

Advocates note that even if de Blasio is off to a slow start, his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, seldom addressed school segregation or took steps to tackle it head-on. Meanwhile, Fariña has asked a top deputy to explore possible enrollment-policy changes that could promote diversity.

“Diversity is very important to me,” she said recently. “It’s how I’ve lived my life as a teacher, a principal, and even as a parent.”

But as policymakers debate the best path toward integration, a few panelists described the daily reality of schools that are separated largely by race and class.

Baptiste, the teacher at P.S. 92, where more than 90 percent of students come from low-income families, said staffers can become overwhelmed by the number of students who arrive scarred by the effects of poverty. She said she refused to send her own son to the school he was zoned for because it had a similarly high concentration of low-income students.

“That’s what I was trying to get away from,” she said. “That kept me up with night terrors and sweats.”

Nathaniel Okoroji, a student at Brooklyn Technical High School, called that school “deeply segregated.” While it has more racial diversity than some of the city’s other eight elite “specialized” high schools, just 16 percent of students last year were black or Hispanic.

Okoroji said that he and other black students often face racism and “anti-blackness” from other students.

“It’s very toxic,” he said. “It’s very hard to learn to the best of your ability when you’re always worried what that kid next to you is going to say.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.