I am a white father who spends two hours on the New York City subway every day with my 10-year-old so he can attend an underfunded, desegregated public elementary school with a majority of black and Latino students and a majority of economically disadvantaged students.
The Earth School in the East Village is not a perfect school, but in many ways it is the best school I could dream of for my child — because he goes to school with children representative of the society he lives in.
Today, 64 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision declared public school segregation unconstitutional, New York is cursed with the most segregated big-city school system in America.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and many others are trying to figure out how to fix it, which is an incredibly complex, emotional issue.
They should start by studying what’s happening here at the Earth School and in District 1, where parent-leaders are demanding, and creating, an inspiring model of diversity.
I wrote a book about one of America’s greatest civil rights heroes, James Meredith. Meredith then asked asked me to co-write his memoir. A central theme of both books is public school desegregation, a cause that Meredith risked his life to achieve in Mississippi.
While doing this, I sent my son to intensely segregated New York City schools. They were private schools. I was, to put it bluntly, afraid of sending my child to a public school with many poor students of color. I was afraid he might be “slowed down” by less capable learners. I was afraid for his safety. I was afraid he might pick up behaviors of poorer children. I was afraid, in other words, of “The Other.”
At cocktail parties, I firmly opposed racism.
In real life, I collaborated with it.
In researching the Meredith books, I came face-to-face with the Beast of White Supremacy, in Mississippi, in the form of William Simmons, co-founder of the white Citizens Council movement, a charming, sophisticated man with whom I spent many hours.
Simmons and his allies battled school integration with “massive resistance” across the South in the 1950s and 1960s, and then, after a string of losses in Congress and the courts, they achieved ultimate victory by pulling out white children en masse from the public school system and placing them in private “segregation academies” that thrive to this day.
“We thought we were doing the right thing,” Simmons told me.
When it came to my own child, so did I.
I also interviewed the terrorist overlord of segregation in the 1960s, Robert Shelton of Alabama, the former Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America, a group that was responsible for atrocities like the slaughter of four black girls in a 1963 bombing in Birmingham. Shelton denied any involvement in that crime but remained unapologetic about most everything else, and he still burned with resentment at the hypocrisy of Northerners who condemned Southern whites as racist while leading largely segregated lives themselves. On this, he had a point.
Shelton and Simmons would have accomplished nothing without the help of multitudes of segregationist collaborators in the North and South — people like me who did little or nothing to actually fight segregation.
In the South, Simmons and Shelton were the Beasts of White Supremacy.
In New York City, I saw the Beast every morning in the bathroom mirror.
I also refused to send my child to traditional public schools or charter schools, because they were overwhelmed by the high-stress, compulsory, mass standardized testing of children as young as eight years old. These low-quality, developmentally inappropriate government tests have been weaponized by politicians, bureaucrats, and the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations to bludgeon schools and bust teacher unions, and are demolishing public education in the process. They measure nothing important to an individual child’s learning that couldn’t be more accurately assessed by the child’s classroom teacher instead. Incredibly, charter schools are often staffed by people with only six or seven weeks of training who are then called “teachers.”
Not with my child, you don’t, I thought. Private school seemed the only option, and a hugely expensive one.
Then one day I heard about the Earth School and decided to pay a visit. It was an astonishing experience. The student body is as diverse as the city it is in, which reflects the work of strong parent advocates in District 1 who are taking the lead in desegregation efforts. The atmosphere is one of safety and support. The teachers are experienced, world-class educators, and teach a rich curriculum with focus, love and encouragement, not stress, fear and overwork. The first class of every day is an optional half-hour of recess before the bell rings. Children in the early grades learn much through play. They are taught to be critical and independent thinkers, world citizens and collaborators. Parents are full partners in school decision-making and much-needed fundraising.
Supported by courageous teachers, over 70 percent of parents at the school refuse to allow their children to take the government-imposed standardized tests, choosing instead to “opt-up” to more accurate, higher-quality individualized assessments by their child’s teacher. Today, I’m one of them.
Right now, the flashpoint in New York City is Mayor de Blasio’s plan to desegregate the city’s eight elite specialized high schools, which absurdly and unfairly rely on a single standardized admissions test that is susceptible to expensive tutoring and cram schools. His proposal to broaden admissions criteria and include multiple measures, as Ivy League universities do, has triggered a firestorm of emotion and criticism on all sides, exposing the seeming intractability of the issue.
The new Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently uttered the ultimate heresy of New York’s ferociously selective middle and high school admissions process, asking, “Why are we screening kids in a public school system? That is, to me, antithetical to what I think we all want for our kids.” The fact that an education leader would even dare to ask such a stunning question in public may signal a glimmer of hope for new ideas and solutions for the children of New York, and for the millions of American children who today attend segregated public schools.
Desegregation may, in fact, be that rarest of education reforms, one that has evidence of working on a large scale. According to a long-term historical analysis by Rucker C. Johnson of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley that was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research and updated in 2015, desegregation significantly benefits African Americans and has no negative effects on whites.
The start of a solution to the ongoing disaster of New York City school segregation is simple. Parents should demand that politicians take concrete emergency steps to provide a safe, high-quality, desegregated school for all New York City children, beginning in their early years. Parents should consider the educational rights of every child to be as precious as those of their own child.
It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. There are hundreds of layers of severe complexity to the issue.
But desegregation is not an impossible dream — the parents of New York’s District 1 and of institutions like the Earth School are already making it happen.
William Doyle is a 2017 Rockefeller Foundation Resident Fellow, a 2015-16 Fulbright Scholar, and an author and TV producer.