Candidates Address School Segregation After DOE Releases Report

Eleven candidates for public advocates discussed school segregation at a forum in Long Island City Tuesday night.  Eagle  file photo by Victoria Merlino.

Eleven candidates for public advocates discussed school segregation at a forum in Long Island City Tuesday night. Eagle file photo by Victoria Merlino.

By David Brand

Eleven candidates for public advocate tackled the issue of school desegregation during a forum in Long Island City on Tuesday, hours after a Department of Education task force on school desegregation outlined specific reforms to diversify public schools by race and income level.

None of the candidates at the forum called on the city to eliminate the Specialized High School Admission Test, which determines who gets into the city’s nine specialized high schools where student bodies are disproportionately white and Asian. Black and Latino students make up 66.5 percent of the New York City school population but received just 10.4 percent of offers to enroll in the specialized high schools last year.

“[The city] is pitting blacks, Latinos and Asians against each other and scapegoating the test instead of addressing the root problem,” said Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim.

Columbia professor David Eisenbach also criticized a plan to get rid of the SHSAT to diversify specialized high schools.

“Changing the entrance requirement is not a solution,” Eisenbach said. “Schools, mainly in neighborhoods of color, have been failing and we need a full-fledged commitment so that all students can compete.”

The DOE working group, which consists of five executive members and a school diversity advisory group, proposed creating the new role of Chief Integration Officer and developing “diversity and integration plans” in the city’s nine most racially diverse school districts, including districts 27 and 28 in Queens and districts 13, 15 and 22 in Brooklyn.

“Segregation ... robs children who have been robbed already by a society that dictates where they can live based on the race, income or language of their parents,” the committee said in the report. “Our societal decisions about public housing and private housing, our history of creating and believing stereotypes about race and immigration and income have created neighborhoods and zoned schools that mirror housing discrimination and poverty.”

Several candidates linked school desegregation with housing in a city that is increasingly unaffordable for low-income residents.

“Put affordable housing in the catchment districts of the best schools,” said Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell, who represents the Upper West Side, which includes one of the city’s highest-performing school districts.

Brooklyn Councilmember Jumaane Williams said NIMBYism sabotages plans to integrate school districts and that he would stand up to communities that resisted desegregation plans.

“People want to get things done until it’s them,” Williams said.

The executive committee’s report also called for ensuring schools have the same academic and extracurricular programs regardless of community income level, train school staff to better serve students with disabilities, develop a common definition of “culturally relevant” education and analyze moving school safety agents from NYPD to DOE control.

Attorney Dawn Smalls, investigative reporter Nomiki Konst and Brooklyn Councillmember Rafael Espinal said they would demand that the state release hundreds of millions of dollars in aid that the state Court of Appeals determined the state owed the DOE in 2006.

“If the mayor can go Paris, the public advocate can go to Albany,” said Smalls, who served in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Espinal, a former state assemblymember, also said he would “go to Albany and push the government to give the $1 billion it owes.”

Economist and policy expert Ben Yee said he would unite districts that are kept in the dark about funding gaps and surpluses that other districts experience.

“There is no community here that survives without other communities,” Yee said. “We’re all in this together.”

Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said she wanted to “applaud somewhat that there is a conversation by the new chancellor” and said she would better engage communities to create a desegregation coalition.