Opinion

New York City takes the first steps towards school integration

Last week, New York City released its school diversity plan, and all hell broke loose. 

Part of the reason is because it is easier for many people to be against something than to be for it. Since the release of the plan – strategically titled, “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools,” – I’ve heard the most inane points of criticism that unfairly dismisses the hard and pressing work of racial justice and other educational equity advocates. These critics have chosen to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

To be sure, the city’s school diversity plan should be viewed among the first fruits of years of on-the-ground efforts of change laborers (e.g., parents’ rights group, educational equity coalitions, student organizers) tilling diligently the fertile, but unkept, pastures of schools and classrooms to prune out social inequity from our educational gardens. Those who have problems with the plan, such as those fixated on the plan's omission of words like “segregation,” “desegregation,” and “integration,” miss the point and have not learned lessons from history (think the catastrophes of forced busing in Boston and the plight of education in Detroit in the aftermath of Milliken v. Bradley). This isn't to say that terms and framing aren't important, but as I read the diversity plan it clearly promises the first – albeit small – practical steps toward increasing integration in New York City schools (and perhaps throughout the nation). Indeed, the plan has many substantive limits, but language and framing are the least of them.

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Many of the criticisms I have heard of the plan strike me as elitist, political, self-centered, out of touch and/or unconcerned with the students it will help. We do have race problems throughout our country and New York city, while being richly diverse, has one of the most segregated school systems in the U.S. This segregation feeds isolation and vulnerability and reifies systems of disparity that animate the most egregious forms of inequity plaguing the city's schools. 

Yet, because of the diligent efforts of change advocates across New York City, we are now, at least, beginning conversations about how school diversity can be leveraged as an intervention to interrupt social and educational inequities. This is an important first step, though the conversation is far from over, and rightly so. 

Still, I am glad that a conversation on school diversity (and inclusion – otherwise known as integration) in New York City has begun. At this point in the conversation, the city has committed itself to three broad goals: increasing racial diversity (though there are very serious problems with the metric, "racially representative," that the city will use to measure this increase); decreasing economic stratification, or the concentrations of economic extremes (poverty or wealth) in any given school; and promoting broader inclusion by providing students who are diverse across language, ability, and housing statuses greater access to all schools across New York City’s Department of Education.

I have heard some false criticism of the latter two goals that they are ways for the city to avoid a conversation about race. This is absurd. In New York City, economic status, language status, ability status and housing status are as much proxies for race as they are proxies for each other. Vulnerability and segregation in New York City are intersectional issues that have race at their core.

Critics miss the fact that the plan also gives broad oversight and problem-solving powers to a community advisory group, comprised of – get this – racial justice leaders. This is an amazing and almost unbelievable aspect of the plan. It means that an advisory committee – led by no other than José Calderón, President of the Hispanic Federation; Maya Wiley, chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board; and Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference – will have vital input concerning the implementation, monitoring, auditing, revision and subsequent evaluation of the plan. And by June 2018, the group will provide the recommendations for improving the plan to the city, the Department of Education and the public. The advisory committee will also have the power to recommend a governance structure, of which I hope they do not advocate some type of underfunded, token diversity czar to oversee these efforts. 

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Finally, the city has put itself on the hook, committing its support to schools in the creation of school level diversity plans, providing technical assistance for the implementation and maintenance of those plans, creating policies and district guidelines to reduce barriers and increase access to New York City schools and making a broad commitment to transparency to inform and update the public about the plan. 

In the coming months, I'll be curious to see a budget to determine how serious the city is about the plan, to see to what extent it is willing to put its money where its mouth is. The ideas laid out in the plan, without monetary investment, are nothing more than far-reaching aspirations, that the public will rightly read as deceptive. Seeing the budget, for me, is as important as seeing the plan itself.

Though timid in its movement, the city is moving in a right direction, taking initial strides toward equity. The journey will not be short. It cannot be abbreviated. It will be long with many, many miles left of travel down a long and difficult and perhaps rocky road – a road that bends toward justice.

David E. Kirkland is the executive director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

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