Sunday, June 19, 2016

Another NYC Integration Story

This week in Slate, Laura Moser covers yet another flap in New York City centered on schools, race and class.

I generally try to stay away from NYC education stories, because I find the politics of the city, district and union to be absolutely headache-inducing. But there are two elements in this story that are familiar to residents of many cities.

First, the well-regarded school at the center of the story, P.S. 452, has enrollment that does not reflect its neighborhood-- the school population is more white, more wealthy than the area housing the school. (13% of students at the school qualify for free lunch, while 48% of the district is low-income).

Second, because the school is overcrowded (it was originally opened to relieve overcrowding in another popular school), there's a proposal on the table to move it to a larger building. But that building is sixteen blocks south, next to large housing projects.

"Well, now, wait," say a whole bunch of parents. "We bough pricey homes to be near this great school."

Nobody yet quoted in a story has yet actually said, "But that would mean my child would go to school next to, and maybe even with, Those People." But, gosh, there does seem to be a bit of a subtext here. Yes, NYC has some of the most segregated schools in the country, but, said one parent as quoted by Chalkbeat, “Why do we have to fix that issue for the whole district?”

The mayor's office is not exactly running at integration with great fervor. Also from Chalkbeat:

The mayor has expressed support for school diversity, but he also has said the city must respect parents’ real-estate investments (a statement that at least one P.S. 452 parent repeated this week), while Chancellor Carmen Fariña has warned against forcing integration “down people’s throats.”

Moser's reaction to Farina's quote is pretty blunt:

Fariña’s line about forcing integration down people’s throats is almost laughable, for what else is the whole history of integration in this country but one of force-feeding, often in the form of landmark Supreme Court decisions?

I might go a step further and note that segregation has pretty much always been forced down people's throats. The difference is whose throats are involved. Segregation, whether we're talking about the explicit segregation of Jim Crow laws in the South or the implicit segregation of cities like Chicago where Blacks were forced into certain neighborhood for housing-- segregation has always forced down the throats of non-white, non-wealthy citizens, where as integration is generally forced down the throat of white folks.

Look, integration is complicated, and people who are pro-integration can make the mistake of treating Black children like props-- let's get some Black kids in our school so we won't look so racisty, or I hear there's some research that says our kids will do better if they have some non-white kids sitting next to them. Community schools are great-- except when they're used as a tool for short-changing one particular group of students.

So maybe even better than making integration a goal is to set a goal that all citizens' voices are heard, all citizens' needs are considered, and all students are viewed as deserving quality education.

After all, the underlying assumptions of integration are often not good:

* Some schools are going to be good and some are going to suck, so it's only fair that students of all races and backgrounds have access to the good ones.

* We are only going to try to make schools decent if there are white kids in them, so let's put some white kids in each of the schools so that each of the schools will get the attention and support it needs.

Either of these problems could be better solved by a resolve to make all schools good schools. I'm not a fan of integration if we are proposing it instead of trying to make all schools great schools.

On the other hand, integration makes supreme sense if we are saying, "Schools should look like our country, our society and our communities, and none of those things are monochromatic any more. You are going to grow up to live in a world of many cultures and many backgrounds, and you might as well start getting a handle on that from the first day you go to school."

That strikes me as far more productive than, "I bought an expensive house on the upper west side precisely so my child could grow up without knowing that Those People even exist. How dare you threaten my bubble."

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