Opinion

Letter to the Editor: Critics of segregation in New York City schools should not be dismissed

The following letter to the editor is a response to Dr. David E. Kirkland's June 13 op-ed: "New York City Takes The First Steps Towards School Integration," which praised Mayor Bill de Blasio's School Diversity Plan for tackling the issue of public school segregation head-on. 

Dear Editors:

I read with interest David Kirkland’s defense of New York City’s school diversity plan. As Professor Kirkland suggests, it is easier to talk about school segregation than to do something concrete about it. The city is to be commended for taking action on this issue, and its proposals deserve serious engagement.

I am not sure, though, how much good it does to dismiss critics of the plan as merely interested in terms and framing. Those critics’ insistence that we speak frankly about desegregation (which, yes, is different from inclusion and diversity) may seem simply discursive. But it is informed by one of the main lessons of New York’s recent political history: reforms that fail to grapple with underlying structural phenomena like segregation and inequality can simply embed existing inequality into new, more politically viable institutional forms.

The history of school reform in New York – particularly the rise of public school choice – is an important case in point. Proponents of choice have long framed it as a way of liberating students from segregated neighborhood schools. Studies have shown that, where the implementation of public school choice was accompanied by an explicit intention to desegregate (so-called “controlled choice” plans), such a policy can be reasonably successful.

This is not how public school choice has played out in New York. Instead, it developed district by district, school by school, absent any larger social objective on the city’s part. This process yielded a labyrinthine system of alternative schools, charters and gifted-and-talented programs, atop the traditional school system (parts of which have also moved toward choice) that systematically benefits those with the knowledge, connections, time and resources to navigate it. It’s little wonder that public school choice in New York has become an engine of re-segregation – as the The New York Times recently laid out.

The main lesson of school choice in New York is simply that reformers need to keep big structural questions like racial segregation front of mind. In a city with New York’s legacy of segregation and inequality, there are no “good” policies, because no immediately feasible policy can completely solve the issue at hand. In this context, a progressive policy is not one that does some good around the margins while leaving the existing structure intact. Rather, it is one that does good now while opening, to the greatest extent possible, opportunities to dismantle more fully the underlying structures of inequality.

I agree with Professor Kirkland that New York’s plan may well satisfy these criteria – but he is also right to suggest that this will depend on how the plan is implemented. If I, too, may partake of horticultural metaphors: Advocates of the mayor’s school reform plan seem confident that it would sow the seeds for future progress. I hope this is true. But if it is, I think those seeds will grow best if tended by those who have thought most deeply about racial segregation and its consequences. Their critical perspective is valuable, and it is to be sought out, not pushed aside.

Mason B. Williams is assistant professor of political science and leadership studies at Williams College and the author of City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York (Norton, 2013).

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