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Lawsuit Challenging N.Y.C. School Segregation Targets Gifted Programs

Eliza Shapiro at New York Times
Март 2021



Mayor Bill de Blasio has made some modest changes to admissions policies for elite public schools, but has left major questions about school integration to his successor. 
Credit...Pool photo by Jeenah Moon

major new lawsuit filed Tuesday could force fundamental changes to how New York City’s public school students are admitted into selective schools, and marked the latest front in a growing political, activist and now legal movement to confront inequality in the nation’s largest school system.

Even if the suit, brought by civil rights attorneys and student plaintiffs in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, does not upend the city’s admissions system, it will likely prompt scrutiny of New York’s school system, considered among the most racially and socioeconomically segregated in the country.

The suit argues that the city’s school system has replicated and worsened racial inequality by sorting children into different academic tracks as early as kindergarten, and has therefore denied many of its roughly one million students of their right to a sound, basic education. Defendants include Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the incoming schools chancellor, Meisha Porter.

If the plaintiffs are successful, the city could be compelled to restructure or even eliminate current admissions policies for hundreds of selective schools, including gifted and talented programs and academically selective middle and high schools.

The suit could also accelerate pressure on Ms. Porter to articulate a school integration plan. The outgoing chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, resigned from his post over disagreements with the mayor over how aggressively to pursue desegregation. 


And the crowded field of Democrats vying to become the next mayor will likely have to contend with the lawsuit’s claims about the school system. The primary election that will almost certainly determine the next mayor is less than four months away.

“This is the first case in the nation to seek a constitutional right to an anti-racist education,” said Mark Rosenbaum, one of the lawyers suing the city and state.

Mr. Rosenbaum, the director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, a Los Angeles-based pro bono law firm, is joined on the case by prominent civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, along with the law firm Sidley Austin and IntegrateNYC, a youth-led integration group.

Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, defended the city’s record on school desegregation. “This administration has taken bold, unprecedented steps to advance equity in our admissions policies,” she said in a statement. “Our persistent work to drive equity for New York City families is ongoing, and we will review the suit.”

Mr. Rosenbaum’s group has sued several states and school systems in recent years, most prominently the Detroit public schools, for failing to provide students with a basic education guaranteed under the Constitution. The law firm also sued the state of California last year for failing to offer a sound, basic education via remote learning.

In the Detroit case, a federal court found last year that the district had been so negligent toward the educational needs of students that children had been “deprived of access to literacy.” The court then declared that public school students had a constitutional right to an adequate education. The plaintiffs later reached a settlement with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan to fund more literacy programs in the Detroit public schools.

The New York suit highlights the lack of nonwhite teachers relative to the student population, which is nearly 70 percent Black and Latino, and the disproportionately high suspension rates for nonwhite students compared with their white classmates.

But it focuses mainly on the issue that has thrust New York’s divided school district into the national spotlight: the sorting of students as young as 4 years old for selective classes. New York is more reliant on academic prerequisites like test scores, grades and attendance to place students in public schools than any other school district in America.

The city’s gifted and talented classes for elementary school students are about 75 percent white and Asian-American, and there are relatively few gifted programs located in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. White students, who make up just 15 percent of the overall district, are starkly overrepresented in selective middle and high schools.

About 40 percent of the city’s middle schools use academic screens like grades and test scores to determine which students to admit, and many high schools, including elite schools like Stuyvesant High School, sort students by ability or require students to take a high-stakes admissions exam for entry.

In 2019, roughly three-quarters of Black and Latino students went to schools that had student populations that were less than 10 percent white, and over a third of white students attended schools with mostly white populations, according to data collected by the City Council.

While New York is unique among big-city school districts for its reliance on high-stakes admissions across grade levels, the suit could have relevance in other districts. Some systems, including those in San Francisco, Boston and Fairfax County, Va., have recently changed admissions processes for some of their selective high schools, but racial and socioeconomic segregation is still common in many school districts across the country.

The New York State Constitution guarantees all students a right to a sound, basic education, and other states have equivalent clauses, said Amanda Savage, a lawyer with Public Counsel, during a news conference on Tuesday.

“We absolutely think that all students across the country have a right to an anti-racist education,” Ms. Savage said, noting that the extent of New York’s segregation made it a “particularly powerful place” to bring the lawsuit.

Decades of research have shown that integration can improve academic outcomes for nonwhite students in particular because desegregation leads to money and other resources being distributed more evenly across schools.

“Nearly every facet of the New York City public education system operates not only to prop up, but also to affirmatively reproduce, the artificial racial hierarchies that have subordinated people of color for centuries in the United States,” the complaint reads.

Mr. de Blasio has announced some changes to selective admissions in recent months, largely prompted by the pandemic. He has suspended competitive middle school admissions for one year, with a permanent decision to come before he leaves office.

The mayor has also created a temporary new admissions system for 4-year-olds vying for seats in gifted and talented classrooms. Rather than having those children sit for a much-criticized exam, they will be referred to gifted programs by their preschool teachers, or sit for an interview.

Integration activists have called that a stopgap measure that will do little to diversify schools. It is not yet clear how the city will admit students into gifted classes starting next year.

In 2018, the mayor tried and failed to push the State Legislature to eliminate the admissions exam for the city’s so-called specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant High School. The entrance exam for those schools is largely controlled by Albany.

The plaintiff’s request for relief includes the elimination of selective admissions processes for all grade levels, which would amount to the most dramatic change to the city’s school system in decades.

“This would be the ugliest trial in New York history if the city and state insist on trying these practices,” Mr. Rosenbaum said, adding that he hopes the city will quickly change its admissions policies.

Though a top-to-bottom restructuring of the city’s selective admissions policies seems unlikely, a judge could require the city to alter some of its admissions protocols or find other ways to ensure that selective schools are more representative of the city’s student population.

But even landmark education rulings do not always prompt clear change.

A New York judge ruled in 2001 that the state’s system for funding public schools was deficient, and violated students’ rights to a basic education. That ruling, delivered more than a decade after the suit was first filed, soon became a public awareness campaign about school funding issues. It is cited frequently by politicians and activists, but much of the money owed to schools has still not been distributed.


Eliza Shapiro is a reporter covering New York City education. She joined The Times in 2018 and grew up in New York, attending public and private schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn. @elizashapiro

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