Racially Segregated Schools in America: The Bloomberg, Gates, Bush and Obama Legacies

The impact of Bloomberg, Gates, Bush, and Obama policies on school segregation can be seen in the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem and Central Brooklyn. Since 2000, demographics in central Harlem have shifted dramatically.
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The just released UCLA Civil Rights Project report on increasing racial segregation in American schools identified schools in New York City and State as the most racially segregated in the United States. The report highlights the numbers, but unfortunately the Civil Rights Project shies away from drawing the hard and I think obvious conclusions.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the UCLA Civil Rights Project report is that it acts as if public schools can transform American society by themselves, instead of just reflecting its growing racial, ethnic, and class inequality. It is as if the Civil Rights Project is afraid to challenge its corporate and foundation funders, which include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Educational Testing Service, the Ford, Charles Stewart Mott and Anne E. Casey Foundations, which all provide funds for charter schools, because they will shut off the financial spigot.

In its recommendations, the report argues, "At the federal level, our country needs leadership that expresses the value of diverse learning environments and encourages local action to achieve school desegregation (125). On the state level, it proposes that New York "develop and maintain interdistrict transfer programs, regional magnets, student assignment or choice policies that include civil right standards, and diverse teaching staff (126). The Civil Rights Project also proposes breaking down district boundaries in the New York City suburbs (128) and that New York City make racial desegregation a priority (130).

I agree with the Civil Rights Project conclusion that racial, ethnic and economic school "integration can provide strong advantages for all students, as well as prepare them to live and work in a multiracial society" (134). But what is missing from the report and its recommendations is any recognition that increased racial segregation in American schools, at least in part and probably a big part, is not just the result of demographic trends, policy errors, or lack of will. It is the result of corporate and foundation activities and conscious local, state, and federal policy decisions. It is the legacy of Michael Bloomberg efforts to promote urban gentrification, Bill Gates push for small schools and Common Core, George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind, and the Barack Obama / Arne Duncan Race to the Top.

The Civil Rights Project report briefly acknowledges that in New York City the Bloomberg administration exacerbated the problem of racial isolation in public schools by following a policy that "Race may be considered as a factor in school enrollment only when required by court order" (129). However, it does not even mention Common Core, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, Teach for America, for profit schools, the out-sourcing and privatization of school services, the influence of mega-companies such as Pearson who publish, promote, and evaluate the high-stakes tests, or the new complex teacher evaluation programs. These are all factors that have contributed to racial segregation in American schools. The report points out that charter schools have increased racial isolation in New York City schools (viii), but leaves out that the expansion of charter schools was mandated by the Obama administration in order for the state to receive federal Race to the Top money. In fact, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are premised on the belief that educational equity can be achieved without racial integration.

In addition, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core high-stakes testing of students, and new performance ratings for teachers based on student test scores has meant that school districts, schools, and teachers try to avoid poor evaluations by avoiding minority students they fear will be poorly performing and potentially disruptive. Middle class parents, whose children are forced to compete for admission into select elementary, middle, and high schools, also do not want their children tied up in programs that are focusing on remediation and test prep. As a result, whatever the intent, these programs have contributed to the racial isolation reported by the Civil Rights Project.

The impact of Bloomberg, Gates, Bush, and Obama policies on school segregation can be seen in the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem and Central Brooklyn. Since 2000, demographics in central Harlem have shifted dramatically. In 1990, only 672 Whites lived in central Harlem. By 2000, there were 2,200 and in 2008 there were nearly 13,800. There was a similar transformation in the central Brooklyn community of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Between 2000 and 2010 the Black population of this community declined from 75% to 60% as affluent Whites purchased and rehabilitated multi-family brownstones and turned them into single-family homes. In parts of the area, Blacks are now in a minority.

You would expect the local schools to reflect the changing demographics of the communities, but they do not. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with support from the Gates small school initiative, promoted the gentrification of these communities and the real estate boom by separating school from community. Blacks and Latino students, especially children from poorer families, are concentrated in local public schools and charters. Meanwhile the White children attend designer public mini-schools and schools of choice in other neighborhoods (23).

In New York City's racially segregated suburbs on Long Island and in Westchester, it may be possible to racially integrate schools by consolidating neighboring local school districts, but politically, it does not seem feasible at this time. Any politicians who proposed it would be quickly voted out of office. In New York City, where the public school student population is 85% Black and Latino, meaningful large-scale racial integration may not be possible at all. However, small changes can be done.

Fewer and fewer Black and Latino students are admitted into New York City's prestigious academic high schools each year. In 2013, only 12% of the 5,229 students accepted into the city's eight elite test schools were Black or Latino. At three of the schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech, state law mandates that admission be based on the high-stakes tests. But at the other five, the city is free to use other criteria, but it does not. But if New York and its new mayor, Bill de Blasio are serious about educational equity and racial justice, these are ways to get around legislative restrictions at Stuyvesant, Science and Tech as well. The city can establish a new school and locate it in each of the buildings, Stuyvesant, Science and Tech Academies. These new schools would recruit and enroll highly qualified Black and Latino students who would attend classes with the other students in the building and receive extra support when needed.

This plan will not change education in the entire city, state or country, but at least it will establish racial integration in our schools as a value worth respecting and fighting for.

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