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NYC’s Doomed Plan to Racially Balance its Schools

It's trapped inside hard-left reasoning where scholastic excellence isn't even a factor.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor Richard Carranza want more black and Hispanic students enrolled in New York City’s selective schools. Their diversity proposals seek to reverse Asian and white prevalence on account of test-based admissions. Despite escalating criticism, to do so, they are retreating from school choice and entrance policies put in place during the Michael Bloomberg years.

Two weeks ago, irate Asian parents in Brooklyn jeered department of education flak catchers trying to pitch the diversity plan. One protester said, “instead of fixing broken schools, they want to break the ones that are working.” A recent Manhattan Institute study reiterated the folly of race- and ability-mixing to close the “racial achievement gap,” concluding that “educational opportunities for black and Hispanic students need to move beyond racial integration efforts.”

While the mayor himself avoids the inflammatory word segregation, his chancellor and The New York Times editors pushing his agenda do not. In this case segregation is not legally enforced separation by race but the unwanted consequence of merit-based admissions.

Carranza positions himself as a “man of color” acting to dismantle a grossly segregated school system. Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, he was appointed San Francisco’s deputy superintendent of instruction, innovation, and social justice in 2009. He became the city’s superintendent, and then for 18 months, Houston’s school chief. When de Blasio’s first pick for chancellor mysteriously backed out nine months ago, Carranza filled the vacancy. His academic qualifications are spare. The sole published article on his résumé is titled, “Mariachi Instruction in Support of Literacy.” (Carranza is a mariachi guitarist of note and makes much of it.)

The city’s performance differentials by school and race are vast. From early grades until junior high school, Asian and white students consistently outpace blacks and Hispanics on reading and math tests, earning more choice in school selection. As a result, Asian and white kids cluster in demanding schools where black and Hispanic enrollments remain low. New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz points out that these islands of scholastic quality have acted to prevent white flight and attract parents who once reflexively opted out of the public system. Parents who opposed admissions changes on the Upper West Side earlier this year were called out and shamed as bigots.

Last spring, de Blasio went after highly competitive high schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, seeking to scrap admissions exams. He took on sought-after middle schools on the Upper West Side’s District 3. His high school proposal has stalled, but starting in 2019, District 3 will set aside 25 percent of sixth grade seats for its least proficient, lowest income children. Faculties will receive “implicit bias training and professional development to help them meet the needs of all students,” the district has announced.

Brooklyn’s District 15’s middle schools have been a more recent target. For diversity forces, the district—which includes the gentrified Park Slope neighborhood—epitomizes citywide segregation. About 81 percent of its white middle school students attend three schools, while 53 percent of its total middle school enrollment is black or Latino.

According to District 15’s diversity plan, which is nominally parent driven, 11 middle schools will abandon competitive entrance criteria—grades, test scores, and attendance—and replace them with a weighted lottery system. They will reserve roughly half of all seats in each school for children who are low-income, homeless, or learning English. To balance races and make room at the top, able children seeking admissions to better schools will get bounced into the cellar. As part of the equalizing effort, arts-based New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts will stop holding talent-based auditions. Of New Voices’ 600 current students, 52 percent are white, 33 percent are Hispanic, 7 percent are black, and 5 percent are Asian.

New York City’s “admissions process presents itself as a system of choice and meritocracy, but it functions as a system for hoarding privilege,” councilman Brad Lander professes, adding grotesquely, “my family has benefited from that privilege.” A University of Chicago graduate, Lander is responding to rising anti-white political feeling in the boroughs. A man of intense ambition, he is married to activist lawyer Meg Barnette, chief of staff and general counsel at Planned Parenthood NYC. Critics point out that Lander’s and Barnette’s own children—along with de Blasio’s—attended the whitest, highest performing, most exclusive middle school in District 15, one of the three schools under fire.

Keep in mind that New York’s education complex, when compared to ordinary school districts perhaps one one-hundredth the size, strains the imagination. It encompasses 1,700 separate schools and oversees more than a million children. Forty percent of them live in households where a language other than English is spoken. Roughly 40 percent are Hispanic and another 25 percent black. The remaining third is split evenly between Asians and whites. The upper professional class and mega-rich deserted the system long ago, as did many Catholics and Jews. More than 100,000 New York City children attend yeshiva.

Necessarily, many New York public schools are extensions of state welfare systems. The really damaged kids—the heartbreakers and the throwaways, the deranged and the dangerous—are given over to social workers, foster parents, or the police. Much school business in the cellar is devoted to dealing with outside-of-school social tragedies. Some kids have nowhere else to go for food, heat, and daytime human contact. Police and everyone else want the hard cases kept off city streets and buses.

In his unsparing 2016 profile of a New York City high school, The Battle for Room 314, Ed Boland draws a grim portrait of the city’s educational cellar. Students at the low end have never read a real book and never will. They cannot do simple arithmetic or write a sentence. They have no grasp of the government that likely provides their housing, food, and medical care. Loosened from stigma and shame, many grow up in world of brutality, amorality, and chaos. What if girls have children out of wedlock at 16? If boys think selling dime bags is an easier way to make a living than working at Burger King? Who and what are going to fix that?

Trapped inside the hard-left reasoning that monopolizes New York’s education and philanthropic establishment, Boland blames inequality, white privilege, racism, and lack of opportunity for the mess. “End poverty, the root of educational failure,” he concludes, desperate for an endnote.

Attentive parents of all races do anything to avoid Room 314, and the minimal standards, coarse behavior, half-educated teachers, and parking lot classrooms that come with the package. They boycott schools ringed with graffiti, barbed wire, television security cameras, and metal detectors. Private schools, special public schools, “magnet” programs, and charters—in New York they are of very mixed quality—fill the bill for some children, though not enough.

Manhattan’s District 3 and Brooklyn’s District 15 overflow with educationally ambitious parents who are neither poor nor struggling. Most districts do not. Mixing students of vastly different learning abilities doesn’t work. It’s humiliating for slow learners and non-English speakers. Instruction slows down and tensions rise. If their child’s school suddenly fills up with disabled, troubled, and delinquent children—or if learning grinds to a halt—functioning parents bolt.

Should it be carried out, New York’s diversity plan—redolent of racial politics—will have a modest impact on its intended minorities and Gotham’s most admirable schools will be almost certainly be the losers. But it is unclear whether scholastic quality and excellence are even considerations in this wrongheaded, egalitarian scheme.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.