In the 1980’s and 90’s votes on the death penalty in Albany became a ritual, the bill would pass in the Republican-controlled Senate and stall in the Assembly; slowly the supporters gained votes in both houses and a death penalty law passed, and vetoed by Governor Mario Cuomo, it happened year after year for a decade. With the defeat of Cuomo and the election of George Pataki a death penalty law was inevitable and became law..
A few years later a Republican old timer bemoaned how passing a death penalty law was politically foolish; it removed a great election issue.
Is school integration the current day death penalty debate?
Tip O’Neill, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, is famous for a simple quip: all politics is local.
The school integration struggle in New York City reminds us of the death penalty debate. For progressive voters in New York City and across the nation school integration is gospel. In the sixty-four years since the Brown v Board of Education decision cities and states have struggled with school integration; the courts have backed away from forcing integration plans, municipalities have found ways to avoid integration efforts, white parents have fled public schools, housing patterns and gentrification all combined to create more not fewer segregated schools.
In 2014 a report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project pointed to New York as having the most segregated schools in the nation.
Of all the attempts to improve outcomes for children of color school integration is one of the few that has been successful.
The evidence is overwhelming: students of color have better outcomes in integrated classrooms.
Electeds in New York City have jumped on the school integration train, up to a point. There has been no discussion of what happens when students of color appear in their new schools. Will the classes also be integrated? Do the teachers have experience in teaching heterogeneous classrooms? Do the schools have teachers of color on the staffs?
… city officials approved a plan that will ban selective admissions at all middle schools in a swath of Brooklyn. But as the dust settles, even parents who agree with the plan are nervous about how it will play out.
Are schools equipped to serve a wide range of learners? Will classrooms themselves be diverse? Can the reforms help combat systemic inequalities that exist well before middle school?
James Madison High School was carefully selected as the first high school in south Brooklyn to be integrated in the early sixties, a swath of Brownsville was zoned to Madison – ten years later the school was 65% white/35% black, and was hailed as a successfully integrated school, until December, 1973, when, as described by the media, a “race riot” erupted. The NYC Human Right Commission investigated the incident and issued a detailed report (unfortunately no longer online).
My wife was one of six Afro-American students at Vassar College, blatant racism, intended and unintended was commonplace; it took more than a decade for the college to confront their failings.
Chancellor Carranza jumped on board the integration train; however, aside from middle school blind choice plans in two school districts nothing else seems to be in the works, and, the Mayor/Chancellor have declared plans must emanate locally, with some financial support from central.
The Chancellor’s Advisory Task Force on Diversity, a fifty member blue ribbon group will issue their report in December.
Can local Community Education Councils (CEC), bodies made up of self-selected active parents, councils across the city that have vacancies, meetings poorly attended, actually create plans?
In the late 70’s/early 80’s a decentralized school in Brooklyn, District 22 (Flatbush, Midwood, Madison, Marine Park, Sheepshead Bay, Mill Basin), created and implemented an integration plan; over 1,000 Afro-American students were bused from overcrowded schools in the northern end of the district to underutilized white schools in the southern end of the district. No newspaper articles, no tweets, contentious packed school board meetings and scores of smaller meetings resulting in years of integrated schools.
Did the Afro-American students who were bused achieve at higher levels than students in segregated schools? I would like to think so, in those days data was not as available and I don’t believe anyone ever investigated.
Why did the District Decide to Create and Implement the Plan (Carrot and Stick)?
The school board was concerned that a possible lawsuit, or the feds, would impose an integration plan, better to design a locally created plan; additionally, the feds had competitive grant programs to provide incentive dollars to districts to create programs that “reduce racial isolation.”
An Intelligent and Well-Constructed Plan
The plan, called the “frozen zone,” was created by the district and circulated to stakeholders for comment; it was an intelligent plan; adjacent addresses in the sending area were assigned to the same school. Kids would be traveling and attending classes with their friends, neighbors and siblings. The receiving schools could hold parent meetings in community rooms in the sending buildings. The superintendent made it clear: he did not want to see segregated classrooms in the receiving schools.
The Importance of Elected School Boards
School board members were elected in highly competitive elections; in the first school board election in the district over 30,000 votes were cast. The winners had constituencies: political clubs, civic and community organizations, churches and synagogues, unions, cooperative building boards; the current Community Education Councils are parents who volunteered to serve on CEC’s. The nine elected school board members in the decentralized districts had political weight in the community.
The Art of Building Consensus
The school board reached out to the community power brokers: elected officials and political activists, faith-based leaders, heads of neighborhood and community organizations, parent associations and the teachers’ union. Three schools rebelled and left the District Parent Council and formed their own council. There were numerous meetings, school board meetings, civic associations, parent association meetings, to spread the gospel and field questions.
The leader of a powerful political club was on board from the beginning, and when anyone whispered, “What does Tony think?” a nod, “He’s on board,” was enough for many community activists.
Competent Leadership and Effective Management
Parents in the sending schools were nervous, putting their “little ones” on a school bus sending them to a school that might not want them. The district provided Creole speakers at the meetings, local pastors were briefed and invited to meetings; parents in the receiving schools were welcoming. The superintendent made sure the “little things” went well: the buses arrived on time, the lunch rooms were also integrated, no black tables and white tables, no collecting of funds to supplement instruction that would burden the bused families.
The school district totally committed to school-based decision-making, extensive training for school leadership teams, the school district lobbied in Albany, and lobbied successfully, all schools had state-funded pre-k programs, the lotteries for slots in the pre-k included the frozen zone families.
No Special Education kids were bused; schools had to provide “appropriate instruction” at the home school.
The district acted as if it was apart from the city, and in the nineties the district asked then Chancellor Rudi Crew if they could become a “Charter District;” we’d stay within union contracts and state law, otherwise, leave us alone. Crew demurred.
The middle schools became choice schools, each had a theme and fifth graders could apply to any of the six middle schools or attend their zoned school.
Upon his election Mayor Bloomberg immediately moved to end decentralized, locally elected boards and created the current mayoral control system.
Unfortunately the good was washed away with the bad, sort of an education Gresham’s Law..
Low performing districts under decentralization, and there were many, were allowed to fester, and some became patronage pools for the political establishment. A few districts, too few, were high functioning and innovative, sadly, all the “good” slid away with the end of decentralization.
Fifteen years into mayoral control some applaud and others bemoan the lack of progress.
Samuel Becket’s play “Waiting for Godot,” is a discussion about waiting for a salvation that is unlikely to ever come. Sometimes I feel that our schools are also waiting for salvation, and, we know that salvation comes from within us.
I don’t believe that Bill Gates or Mayors or Chancellors will snap their fingers and create higher achieving schools. Leadership can create fertile grounds and provide tools, school leaders and teachers make the difference.