Recently, the New York City Department of Education’s Education Panel (a structure more accustomed to advising than governing) voted to omit a footnote in the city school’s admissions policy limiting the use of race as an admissions criteria.
The footnote had originally represented the city’s understanding of a Supreme Court decision precluding the use of race in school admissions decisions. Advocates have fought to eliminate this limitation.
While I agree that the current segregation of public schools is the most pernicious impediment to the academic success of students of color, I’m afraid that it will take considerably more than this gimmicky approach to accomplish change. Many of us long for a secret bullet to integrate our public schools, but no such convenient remedy exists.
In a city where housing segregation parallels that of our schools, there are no easy solutions to improving academic outcomes of children of color by having them attend schools with their white and Asian counterparts. There are however, two things we can do immediately to remedy the terrible and pernicious isolation of African-American and Latino youngsters.
The easier of the two would be to reinstate the long standing, now all but forgotten strategy of permitting the valedictorians from each of our middle schools regardless of their admissions exam scores to select entry from among our specialized exam-driven high schools.
This practice was in place for decades and resulted in much higher representation of black and Hispanic students at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and the other so-called specialized high schools. In a department with no historical memory, such an elegant and precedential solution to the problem of underrepresentation in these schools has eluded the mayor and chancellor.
The other solution to integrating our schools is much more difficult, in that the backlash from white middle class communities could end political careers within and beyond our school system. Nevertheless, we need to proceed with all deliberate speed to unzone all of our elementary and middle schools. (High schools have been unzones for years.) In this scenario, students from anywhere in the city could apply to any school. As in our charter schools, admissions would need to be done by lottery. While busing costs would inevitably increase, we would need to remember that no other solution would do more to raise the academic outcomes of our students with the greatest challenges.
I’m under no delusion that the backlash from the real estate industry alone could make our elected and appointed leaders quake in their boots. Integration, however, has never been easy. But if New York City is to realize the full promise and potential of all of our children, we will need courageous leaders in government and education to lead the way.
With 2017 fast approaching, there’s no time to lose in identifying who these brave souls might be.
Eric Nadelstern a professor of practice in educational leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University and former New York City deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Bloomberg.