The System that Segregated NYC Schools

by Ronnie Almonte

In 2019, on their last day of school, dozens of New York City high school students staged a sit-in at the home of the city government. “[W]e occupied the lobby of City Hall for 5 hours,” members of Teens Take Charge wrote on Facebook, “to protest 5 YEARS of inaction from Mayor de Blasio to integrate NYC high schools.” These students protested de Blasio’s empty promise to promote equality in the New York he inherited, which remains a “Tale of Two Cities,” where income disparity is widening and racial segregation is deepening. Nowhere is this more striking than in the country’s most segregated school system.

Recently New York’s nine elite high schools, the specialized high schools (SHS), have been in the media spotlight. And with good reason, as their numbers tell a startling tale. Although 70% of public school students are Black and Latinx, these groups make up only 10% of SHS enrollment. Indeed, representation from these groups has been declining. Among the original three SHS the percentage of Black students has fallen from the double-digits to no more than 7% today. Strikingly, the percentage of Black students enrolled at Brooklyn Technical High School dropped dramatically from 51% in 1985 to 6% in 2017. Last year, Stuyvesant High School, the most selective SHS, made offers to only seven Black students out of 895 spots. The SHS reveal sharply the extent of New York’s growing school segregation crisis.

There have been demands for a solution. Last year the mayor, after significant movement pressure, proposed changes to how students are admitted to eight of the SHS. Currently admissions are based solely on scores earned on the entrance exam, the SHSAT. De Blasio has proposed scrapping this test, and instead reserving SHS seats for the top 7% of students from every middle school in the city. Research suggests that this would produce slight gains in Black and Latinx representation. Change, however, would ultimately need to be ratified in Albany; the mayor’s proposal requires the approval of the Democrat-controlled New York State legislature. Unfortunately, the legislature has failed to vote on any changes. Certainly, the legislature’s inaction has been matched by the mayor’s own restraint. De Blasio has been accused by activists of doing little to advocate for his own proposal. Furthermore, it’s probably within his legal power to change admissions at five of the SHS, but he has refused to pursue the matter.

Although the mayor’s proposal is modest, opposition to it has been enormous. Opponents defend wholeheartedly the use of the SHSAT. It’s their belief that this high-stakes exam is objective, merit-based, and fair. This opposition movement is largely backed by lobbyist groups funded by CEOs, and alumni associations with deep pockets. Its ranks also include self-described progressives such as Jumanee Williams, alumnus of the specialized school system and current New York City Public Advocate. Instead of scrapping the SHSAT, they believe the city should instead expand access to the exam, invest in SHSAT preparation services, and open more SHS.

“At some point it must be asked more generally: Why expend all this effort preserving an exam whose validity and legitimacy are dubious?”

But it’s unclear that any of these costly alternatives would yield any progress. In all the new SHS opened since 2000, offers to Black students remain disproportionately low. Indeed, in 2018 Black and Latinx applicants made up 43% of test takers but received only 10% of offers—suggesting that more access would translate poorly into enrollment equity. Some may argue that underperformance on the exam means that these groups are being inadequately prepared, and so the city should provide more equitable training. But it’s unconvincing that the same structural forces that disadvantage Black and Latinx children from enrolling in the SHS, and sitting for the test, won’t also limit their ability to take advantage of test prep programs—all the more since they would undoubtedly be held outside the school day.

At some point it must be asked more generally: Why expend all this effort preserving an exam whose validity and legitimacy are dubious? There are better predictors of SHS performance—such as middle school grades, or scores from state exams (for which preparation is universally built into the curriculum and, unlike the SHSAT, are taken during school hours). These alternatives would satisfy SHSAT defenders’ own requirements for admissions based on academic merit. But they oppose them—because it’s really not about defending objectivity, but protecting the most privileged routes to the SHS that exist because of the SHSAT. Last year just ten middle schools made up 25% of SHS offers—and among these ten “feeder” schools (themselves extremely selective) none has a Black student population higher than 8%. Examples of how the more resourceful benefit from weaknesses in the system—like securing extra time on the SHSAT—are abundant. By abolishing the test, the outsized impact of these unfair advantages would be minimized. Its elimination would help level—although hardly equalize—the playing field. But that would cut into the small niche that the most privileged have created for themselves in New York City’s public school system.

Indeed, the SHSAT was enshrined into law in 1971 to block the diversification of the SHS. Lawmakers passed the Hecht-Calandra Act to “protect” the SHS from the consequences of a looming city investigation on racial discrimination. The law was enacted in the wake of a desegregation movement that in 1968 culminated into a racial confrontation between the white-dominated teachers union and the Black-led desegregation and “community control” movement. (Unfortunately, the United Federation of Teachers supported Hecht-Calandra). This kind of maneuvering allowed New York’s high schools to avoid integration mandates issued to other cities like Chicago, where in 1980 the city and the federal government agreed to use race as a factor in admissions to magnet and selective-enrollment schools. Diversity in Chicago’s elite schools increased as a result. In contrast, since New York’s passage of Hecht-Calandra, the percentage of Black SHS students has fallen abysmally, confirming the predictions of opponents of the bill.

Some resent the outsized attention to the SHS, whose population make up only one percent of all NYC students. They argue that problems in the SHS exist simply because they trickle up from a broken elementary and middle school system. Furthermore, they argue that the SHS are being unfairly singled out, since other city high schools show more extreme lack of diversity.

It’s true that, even before entering high school, children are being sorted by forces such as neighborhood segregation and gerrymandering. Especially problematic is the use of screening, which allows schools to exclude students based on factors such as test scores, grades, attendance record, and interviews (and high schools by region or “district”). Of course, children from more privileged families have an unearned advantage in satisfying these admission criteria. As a result, students become simultaneously academically and racially sorted. This polarization amplifies from middle school to high school admissions. The outcome is a city school system that displays extreme racial and academic segregation—even among schools in the same building. Students who live in the wrong neighborhood, or lack the resources to show proficiency, are isolated into schools that face the Herculean task of helping them graduate–without the workforce stability, fundraising arms, and competitive offerings of the higher-performing schools.

While it’s true that the SHS are not the most extreme examples of underrepresentation, two wrongs don’t make a right. Furthermore, although the SHS undoubtedly inherit disparities among the middle school, the high-stakes entrance exam enhances the competitiveness of middle school admissions, as families attempt to enroll their children where they are more likely to be tracked to the best high schools. What the attention to the SHS has revealed is the extent to which both the SHS and the rest of the school system are broken. 

Any attempt to end the segregation crisis must involve rolling back the reforms of de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. By securing near-total mayoral control over the schools, Bloomberg was able to transform the system into a marketplace, where individual schools compete for enrollment. His reforms were predicated on students being given the choice of escaping failing neighborhood schools, rather than equitably funding and improving all schools. Bloomberg’s school Chancellor, Joel Klein, articulated well the goal of the administration: “What we are seeking is a system comprised of great schools, not a great school system.”

The road that’s led us to the segregation crisis today was paved by Bloomberg’s reforms. Schools were broken up into smaller competitive units, which has resulted in cases where tremendous disparities exist between small schools that share the same building. Schools were allowed to make their admissions more selective; under Bloomberg, the percentage of screened programs increased from 15.8 to 28.4 percent. A school’s budget was no longer tied to its resource and hiring needs, but a formula based on the characteristics of the students it enrolls in an increasing competitive environment. Teacher salaries—which increase with education and experience—became the responsibility of an individual school. Principals became incentivized and were given the power to free up more of their budget by pushing out veteran teachers, or avoiding to hire them altogether. The multi-billionaire mayor indeed created a system of school choice—one where elite schools and principals were given more choice on which teachers to hire and which students to enroll without regard to fairness or equity.

Teachers, students, and families should support the elimination of the SHSAT—and several more reforms that would lead to the creation of a great school system. For example, since competition has exacerbated school inequality, the use of screening by middle and high schools should end. The basis for competition would also be undermined by academic integration, where “at least 25% and no more than 75% of each high school’s incoming freshman class has passed middle school state tests.” That way no school is forced to commit an excessive amount of resources to support remediation, increasing the likelihood that all students will get the support they need. Small schools should be consolidated so that they have the economies of scale to efficiently support all learners. Furthermore, every school should enroll students with economic need in percentages that approximate the city average.

Academic integration and economic diversity would go a long way toward racial integration, but more would still need to be done. The impact of neighborhood segregation could be reduced by redrawing school district lines, building new schools on the boundaries between racially divided communities, and busing. For those concerned about all these changes, the only effect a diverse school would have on students with higher test scores is perhaps make them more empathetic.

The changes that are being proposed and piloted by the mayor, although insufficient, should be defended from attacks by latter-day segregationists. Yet in this defense, we should avoid illusions of the city government’s willingness to confront growing resistance to its reforms. Progress has been sluggish precisely because the city government fears antagonizing white, middle-upper class families. The quality of reforms and the speed by which they are implemented will depend on organized, grassroots pressure.

The desegregation movement will need to make it costly for the status quo to continue, by adopting direct action tactics used during the Civil Rights Movement. Mass demonstrations, sit-ins, and strikes—although more risky than lobbying and backroom-dealing—will need to become routine in our campaign. To be carried out successfully students and parents will need to organize, and teachers will need to persuade the union to use its tremendous power to advance the cause. Other issues such a school funding, faculty diversity, white flight, and housing justice will also need to be taken up. In this way our schools can finally fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.

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