CityViews: Mayor Has Stepped on Toes to Fight Homelessness. He Should do the Same to Desegregate NYC Schools

Print More
The mayor visiting a school in 2015.

Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office.

The mayor visiting a school in 2015.


Currently, there are an estimated 60,000 homeless people within New York City. Mayor de Blasio has responded to this homeless crisis by converting hotels into shelters in certain communities, without initially seeking their input. Such is true in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In May, Williamsburg locals learned that the Brooklyn House Hotel located on Beaver Street would be converted into a permanent shelter for about 80 homeless men. In August, the community was informed that the New York Loft Hostel on Varet Street would serve as a homeless shelter to another 140 homeless men. On both occasions Williamsburg locals denounced the presence of the shelters, claiming to have zero say in the decision making of the DeBlasio Administration.

The City of New York has a moral and legal obligation to provide a home for people without one (Callahan v. Carey mandates the City to provide shelter). This obligation is undoubtedly interfered with if the de Blasio Administration decides to initially include the community in the conversation on whether they would accept having a homeless shelter. There aren’t many urban communities in New York that will willingly accept taking in a shelter to begin with. For compassionate people, enforcing communities to provide their fair share of housing units for the homeless crisis is not an issue. But the de Blasio Administration would be hypocritical to force a policy of homeless integration on communities without pursuing a policy of school integration. Yes, we have a homeless crisis in our hands. However, we also have a school segregation crisis. It is unacceptable to be labeled the most segregated school system in the entire country, especially under a mayor that self-identifies as a Progressive.

One year after the first day he took office, Mayor de Blasio remained silent on the issue of school segregation as he implemented his Universal Pre-K policy. Even after the release of the U.C.L.A. study confirmed what all educational advocates knew, that “New York’s record on school segregation by race and poverty is dismal,” de Blasio brushed off any push for action by saying, “This is the history of America.” Even more upsetting to integrationists was Chancellor Fariña’s language of letting districts come up with “organic” integration plans. History is filled with abundant examples of how governments failed to provide adequate solutions to social justice issues; in those cases justice did not arrive “organically”. Such is true with slavery, women suffrage, the civil rights movement, etc. The people in these cases demanded action, but ultimately the government had to be the bearer of justice. Not until August of this year has de Blasio promised a “bigger vision” for school integration without delving into any details. Despite the overall inaction, de Blasio needs to understand that it is equally imperative for him to attempt to enforce a policy of school integration just as he is demanding communities to accept homeless integration.

62 years after the Supreme Court has upheld that “separate but equal” is in essence separate and unequal, the City of New York has turned its back on upholding this ruling. In 2001, the case Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York proved the US Supreme Court ruling to be true by highlighting the inequities between the funding of suburban schools and urban schools (i.e. schools that are mostly white and schools that have more minorities). So, just as the de Blasio Administration has a moral and legal obligation to provide shelter to the homeless so too is he morally and legally obliged to make sure NYC public schools are adequately integrated.

District 14, located within Williamsburg (the community that has been told to accept the homeless shelters) and Greenpoint, has an estimated 20,000 students enrolled in their public schools. Of those students, 4 percent are Asian, 22 percent are Black, 59 percent are Hispanic, and 13 percent are White. District 14 has a total of 48 schools and of those schools only seven have a White student population at around the 13 percent ratio of the entire district. In other words, only 15 percent of Williamsburg and Greenpoint schools are properly integrated by race according to the demographics of the student population within the entire district.

More astounding is the fact that 7 of the 48 schools within District 14 exceed, by a wide margin, the 13 percent ratio of White students in the entire district. For example, PS 110 The Monitor has a White student population of 64 percent, PS 34 Oliver H Perry has a 73 percent White student population, and PS 31 Samuel F Dupont has a White student population of 42 percent. These schools are located within the neighborhood of Greenpoint, which is home to a large Polish and White population than that of the other Hispanic populated areas of Williamsburg. So, within District 14 there are a few schools that have a high concentration of White students because of the residential segregation. However, this doesn’t mean that a policy of school integration should not be enforced especially since District 14 has an area of only 5.6 square miles and parents should have the right to choose wherever they want to send their kids within their school district. Unfortunately 34 of the 48 schools in District 14 have a White student population of below 7 percent. Thus, close to three-quarters of the schools do not reflect the racial demographics of the entire district.

So, how can NYC successfully desegregate its public schools? What should de Blasio’s “bigger vision” for school integration look like? Like many integrationists, I am a fan of controlled-choice, and I believe that at the very least de Blasio’s proposal to integrate schools should include it.

Controlled-choice was developed in the 1980s in Cambridge, Massachusetts as a result of Boston’s failed busing program, which caused white families to move outside the city or send their children to private schools. In Cambridge, parents of entering kindergartners rank the top 12 elementary schools they would prefer their kids to go to. Then the school district assigns kids to a school by taking into account parental preference along with a rule that every school have a similar proportion of students with “free or reduced lunch”. Therefore, schools in Cambridge balance the choice of the parent with the socioeconomic status of the family, which is measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches. Prior to 2001, schools in Cambridge took into account racial balance in schools instead of the socioeconomic status of the student’s family.       

A policy of controlled choice would work best in New York City if it takes into account both parental preference and either racial balance or socioeconomic status. Each of the 32 school districts in NYC is different. As a result, deciding whether to choose racial balance or socioeconomic status as a variable under such a policy depends on the specific demographics of the school district. For example, in District 14 it would be ideal to balance parental preference to racial balance because, as highlighted above, the district has a high concentration of White students in a few schools. However, school districts that tend to be more diverse by having a near equal number of Hispanics and Blacks as Asians and White should balance parental preference with socioeconomic status. Districts 1 and 3, both currently working on integration plans, have an estimated 38 percent of White and Asian students, a percentage that is greater than the whole City. These districts should look forward to balancing parental preference with socioeconomic status.

In addition to considering parental preference and either racial balance or socioeconomic status it is also important for school districts to make sure that they do not concentrate Special Education students in few schools, which is an occurrence that the Chancellor acknowledged in an interview for Chalkbeat in late August. Likewise, some district lines need to be redrawn to eliminate the divide between rich and poor neighborhoods (like East Harlem and the Upper East Side). Although controlled choice is a policy worth pursuing it is not a panacea. There are districts within the city that are mostly Hispanic and Black and have a high percentage of poverty. For example, District 18 and 23 located in Brooklyn are two school districts that have an estimated 95 percent of Black and Hispanic students along with a poverty level at or above 80 percent. In these districts school integration will prove to be difficult because of residential segregation. District 23 encompasses the neighborhoods of Ocean Hill and Brownsville, which house the highest concentration of public housing in the entire country.

Constitutionality is another issue that might arise from one aspect of a controlled choice system. Race-based school admission was deemed unconstitutional under Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. There are two critical points to be made about this dilemma. First, there is a lot of legal precedent that hints to the constitutionality of a race-based admission. The same Supreme Court that ruled on Brown v. Board later required race to be a remedy to the effects of long segregated schools in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. In that case busing to desegregate school in Charlotte, N.C. was upheld. Second, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 was decided on a split-decision. Therefore, making the Supreme Court more liberal (which is something that hinges on the Presidential election) would probably shift the court to having a legal stance that is more akin to the court of Brown v. Board.

It is no secret that de Blasio inherited the homeless crisis after decades of failed government policies by his predecessors. However, he also inherited a school segregation crisis that also resulted from the indifference of his predecessors. The difference is that he is dealing with one issue and not the other. He is forcing communities to accept the shelters he erects but is not forcing schools to accept diversity. Surely, solving the homeless crisis by locating a shelter in a community without having any community say is easier than trying to integrate schools. Fighting school segregation will require a nuanced, comprehensive plan because the 32 school districts in the city are different. As we enter the 2016-2017 school year, and the 2017 election year, let’s hope that the “bigger vision” that de Blasio has for school integration is not only adequate but is also not coming too late.

Boris Santos is a former public school teacher.



2 thoughts on “CityViews: Mayor Has Stepped on Toes to Fight Homelessness. He Should do the Same to Desegregate NYC Schools

  1. Even a ‘progressive’ like deBlasio knows not to touch this issue because he wants to be re-elected in 2017. Once you put large numbers of poor minority kids into good schools either by ‘controlled choice’ or other means the grades go down and criminal activity like assaults and in-school robberies go up. Parents will, as in the 1960s and 70s, either move out to the burbs or put their kids in private or parochial schools. That’s the sad reality of it and parents know it too. Especially now with an NYCDOE that doesn’t believe in disciplining even the worst offenders.

    • Native New Yorker, what’s your basis for those claims about the effect of low-income, minority children on school safety and scores? My kids have always gone to schools where whites were an extreme minority and those schools have been perfectly safe and generally academically successful. The example of what occurred in the 70s might say more about what happens when tax receipts plummet because of irrational decisions by white people than about what actually happened in the schools before those families left.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *