Even parents who can afford private schools send their
children to P.S. 6 on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The school offers
instruction in political cartooning and foreign
language and a joint program with the Museum of
Natural History. And all the innovation apparently
pays off. More than 92 percent of the students at the
school meet the state standards in reading and math
for their grade level.
But there is another P.S. 6 in New York City, this
one in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Despite
a well-regarded principal, only 40 percent of its
students meet the state standards in reading and less
than a third in math.
The Manhattan P.S. 6 is overwhelmingly white and
includes only a smattering of poor students. Its East
Flatbush counterpart is more than 92 percent black,
with almost 90 percent of its students from families
with low enough incomes to qualify the children for a
free school lunch.
The differences between these schools reflect the
state of education in New York City public schools
today, 50 years after the Supreme Court outlawed
legally enforced school segregation in the United
States. Despite a far greater ethnic diversity, with an
increasing number of Asian and Hispanic students, New York City public schools are among the most segregated in
the country. But, if integration has not been achieved, few New Yorkers seem to see it anymore as the most important goal in education.
THE BROWN DECISION
On May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court issued its
unanimous ruling in the case of Brown
v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, legalized segregation
in the country had just started to crumble in the wake
of World War II. But separate and decidedly unequal
still held sway across much of the country,
particularly the South, with black Americans forced to
sit in the back of the bus, drink at different
fountains, and sit in separate train cars. They were
barred from Woolworth lunch counters and could not try
on clothes in department stores. Poll taxes, tests
with arcane questions and intimidation prevented them
a black third grader in Topeka, Kansas, had to attend
a school a mile from her home, even though a white
elementary school was only seven blocks away. The
principal of the white school refused to admit Linda,
setting in motion the events that would lead to the
historic court ruling.
In defense of its dual school systems, the Topeka
school board argued that segregated schools prepared
youngsters for the segregated society in which they
would live and were not harmful to black youngsters.
After years of argument and deliberation, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice
Earl Warren, rejected those claims. In the decision, Warren
wrote, "Segregation of white and colored children in
public schools has a detrimental effect upon the
colored children. The impact is greater when it has
the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating
the races is usually interpreted as denoting the
inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority
affects the motivation of a child to learn."
Brown and a related ruling "reflected and encouraged
developments that would soon spark the burst of
humane, bold and heroic action that we now know as the
civil rights movement,"
Eric Foner and Randall Kennedy wrote in a special issue of The Nation magazine
commemorating the Brown decision.
Some predicted all schools would be integrated within
five years. But change came slowly. In 1955, the
Supreme Court ruled that desegregation could proceed
"with all deliberate speed," a phrase that many school
districts took to mean "as slowly as possible." And so
a decade after Brown, less than two percent of black
youngsters in the South attended integrated schools.
But the civil rights movement helped change that. And
by 1974, 20 years after Brown, almost half of all
black children throughout the nation went to white-majority schools. Despite
what many call the 'resegregation' of the last few
decades, some of that change remains, including in
Topeka, the city that gave birth to Brown.
But this is not the story in New York City, where the racial composition of schools today almost
resembles those in the South of the 1950s.
Indeed, the city's schools were not much more integrated than Southern schools when the Brown decision was issued -- even though Governor Theodore Roosevelt had directed the New York State Legislature to abolish the last two officially black schools in New York City way back in 1900. But as recounted by Diane Ravitch in her book
The Great School Wars, Kenneth Clark, a
psychologist whose research bolstered the NAACP
arguments in the Brown case, issued another report in 1954
concluding that New York City had a segregated school
system and that black children received an inferior
education. The head of the New York City Board of Education then, Arthur
Levitt, said the segregation had not "been
deliberately imposed by legislation" but was
nonetheless "not good educational policy."
At the same time, the population of the school system
was undergoing a huge change, as many whites left the
city for the suburbs, and more and more Hispanics
moved to New York. There were many subsequent efforts to address the
segregation in the city -- some sincere, some cosmetic, few
NEW YORK'S SEGREGATED SYSTEM
Today, of the approximately 1.1 million students in
New York City public schools, about 13 percent are
Asian, 15 percent white, 32 percent black and 40
percent Hispanic. Given the makeup of the student
body, one reason for segregation of New York City
schools, said Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York
University's Steinhardt School of Education, is that
"there are no kids to integrate with."
But the population of many schools is even more skewed
than the student population as a whole. Some 60
percent of all black students in New York State,
including those in New York City, attend schools that
are at least 90 percent black, according to a recent study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University; more Latinos in New York State than in any other state
go to schools that are 90 percent or more Latino.
this one by the Lewis Mumford Center at the State
University of New York at Albany, found that Asians
and Hispanics are more segregated from whites in New
York schools than in any other school system in the
country. For black-white segregation, New York ranks
The Mumford study also found that, in 2000, the
typical black student attended a school where only five
percent of the other students were white, a sharp drop
This segregation has a different cause than that in the South of the 1950s. In New York,
"the segregation in the schools reflects segregation
in the housing market," said John Logan, who conducted
the Mumford center study. While New Yorkers think of
this as a progressive city, it is, Logan said, "one of
the most segregated cities in the country in terms of
blacks and whites."
But the city has had little success implementing
policies that might reduce the effects that housing
segregation has on schools.
Particularly at the high school level, the Department of Education
established schools with special programs around the
city, in an effort to encourage students to leave
their neighborhoods. But the effort has not done much
to improve integration. Although some of the
individual school programs are good, "I don't believe
school choice has made New York a less segregated
city," said Jill Chaifetz, executive director of
Advocates for Children, which works on school issues.
In another attempt to encourage diversity, the city
requires that some high schools with special programs
admit the same number of students who do poorly on
standardized tests as those who score substantially above
average. But this gives the lowest scoring students a
better chance at admission because far fewer of that
group applies. And some parents, many of them white,
complain that their children are being unfairly denied
a place in these schools.
Partly in response, white parents in several
communities have lobbied to bring back the
neighborhood high school, at least in their
paying the highest tax rates in New York City, we
don't have a school that will prepare our children to
go to the superior colleges they are qualified to
attend," a proposal by East Side parents said.
The parents won creation of the new Eleanor Roosevelt
High School on East 76th Street, but the school admits children from a broad swath of Manhattan, not just the
immediate neighborhood, as the parents had wanted.
Eleanor Roosevelt, now in its first year of existence,
is 10 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic, 35
percent Asian, and 40 percent white.
Parents in the white, affluent Park Slope section of
Brooklyn fought to revamp John Jay, a high school
attended largely by black and Hispanic students from
outside the community. They believed that three new
small schools, with grades 6 through 12, would enable
more Park Slope kids to attend high school in their
neighborhood. They won their fight but may have
achieved a Pyrrhic victory. Top students from Park
Slope have been slow to embrace the three new schools
and at least one is plagued by discipline problems and
a poor reputation in the area.
THE EFFECTS OF SEGREGATION
If the schools are still segregated, does segregation still matter? Some would argue that
Claude Steele, a professor at Stanford University,
listed some effects segregation has on black
students. "They are more likely to go to poorly funded
schools in run-down buildings and more likely to be
taught by uncertified and poorly trained teachers," he
. "They are likely to be counseled with lower
expectations. They are more likely to go to schools
with few or no Advanced Placement courses, and they
are likely to have less access to test-prep courses
and related tutorials."
Although there are exceptions, schools in New
York City with higher test scores tend to have greater
numbers of white and Asian students, while struggling
schools are more likely to be composed primarily of black and Hispanic students.
In the 1990s, the community group ACORN charged that
many junior high schools in predominantly black and
Hispanic areas did not teach students what they needed
to know in order to do well on the test for the
selective specialized high schools, such as
Stuyvesant. In response, rather than improve the
program for all youngsters, the city began offering
special instruction for selected students. Despite the
classes, less than 10 percent of students at
Stuyvesant are black or Hispanic.
Black and Hispanic students score significantly lower
than whites and Asians on virtually all standardized
tests and are less likely to finish high school. About
94 percent of white youngsters in New York State who
started high school in 1999 were seniors in June 2003,
but only 61 percent of Hispanic
children and 65 percent of black students were.
As New York increasingly relies on standardized tests,
some critics worry that black and Hispanic students
will be most affected. For example, most students at
Taft High School and Bushwick High School, both of
which are 98 percent black and Hispanic, did not pass even one of the five Regents tests required for
graduation. "On the 50th anniversary of Brown, we've
come full circle," said Jane Hirschmann of Timeout From Testing.
Relying so much on Regents and other tests, she
said, "is very unequal and very unfair."
Test proponents argue, however, that the lack of firm
standards in education has been discriminatory,
awarding black and Hispanic students diplomas but
without giving them the skills they need to earn a
living or function in society.
Black and Hispanic students also bear the brunt of
discipline in the city schools. More than 90 percent
of students at Second Opportunity Schools for students
serving lengthy suspensions were black or Hispanic, according to Advocates for Children.
Academics, educators and politicians endlessly debate
the reasons for these disparities. But one factor
could be that, along with the achievement gap, there
is a resource gap. Predominantly black and Hispanic
New York City spends $10,500 per pupil, about half the
$21,000 that the rich -- and largely white -- Long
Island suburb of Manhasset spends, Jonathan Kozol has
At the same time, many senior teachers avoid poor,
minority schools in the city in favor of richer
The gap to some extent reflects the fact that much of
the money for schools comes from local tax revenues,
and more affluent -- usually white -- communities
have more money to spend than the black and Hispanic
communities that tend to be less affluent.
But critics charge that New York State does nothing to
erase the gap, and some things that make it worse.
According to David Jones,
president of the Community Service Society, in New
York State "school districts with the highest
percentage of minority students receive over $2,000
annually less than school districts with the lowest
percentage of minority students." He blames the state's
method of allocating funds to districts.
THE BENEFITS OF INTEGRATION
The demand for integration is not purely academic.
Students who attended the more integrated schools of
the 1970s, and those who attend the segregated
schools of today, apparently see the value of
A recent study by Columbia University Teachers College looked at
people who had attended school in the peak integration
years of the 1970s before courts began rolling back
orders requiring busing and other integration
measures. While the integration may not have
completely reformed society, it did change individual members of the class of 1980.
The study concluded that the integrated schools did
more than any other institution, except perhaps the
military, to "bring people of different racial/ethnic
backgrounds together and foster equal opportunity."
And, the people interviewed said they found attending
mixed schools "to be one of the most meaningful
experiences of their lives, the best -- and sometimes
the only -- opportunity to meet and interact regularly
with people of different backgrounds."
Today's school children seem to want a similar chance.
Advocates for Children conducted an essay contest to
mark the Brown anniversary, asking students to write
about such topics as whether integration is important.
In the essays, some of which will be on the group's
web site later his month, students wrote about the
value of diversity, said Deborah Apsel of the group.
"There were kids who said we really wish our school
had more Caucasian students or kids from outside our
neighborhood," she said. "A lot of kids talked about
"tolerance" or "about how integration in the classroom
builds on the learning and can add a different
dimension to discussions."
LESS AGAINST "SEPARATE", MORE FOR "EQUAL"
But experts debate the value of integration.
Derek Bell, a former civil rights lawyer who teaches
at NYU law school, said that in some respects Brown was "a disaster." Those who cheered the decision at the time failed to
recognize how entrenched segregation and white racism
was in America, he said. Rather than trying to do away
with separate schools, Bell has argued, the Supreme
Court "might have been better off" if it had set out
steps, such as monitoring and enforcement, to ensure
that black youngsters attended schools truly equal to
those for white students.
Others who support integration, such as Gary Orfield,
author of the Harvard Civil Rights Project study,
question whether meaningful integregation can take place
without crossing boundaries between city and suburb.
But in 1974 -- 20 years after Brown -- the Supreme Court
in Milliken v. Bradley ruled that school integration
efforts did not have to cross government boundaries --
in that case between predominantly black Detroit and
its white suburbs.
Faced with that and other court decisions that have
chipped away at efforts to integrate schools,
activists in New York have shifted their efforts to
trying to get more funding to improve the schools that
black and Hispanic youngsters attend.
In one, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity challenged the formula New
York State uses to determine how much money the state
gives each local school district. Activists in other
states have also argued that poorer school districts
need more money to help their students meet new state
In the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, the state's
highest court ruled that Albany's funding formula denied students in New
York City and other cities in the state their right to a
"sound, basic education," and ordered that the
situation be corrected. But the issue remains
entangled in politics and disputes about the amount of
money required. Neither Governor George Pataki nor the
legislature -- nor localities -- have come up with a
means to fund the court's mandate. The governor
suggested using funds from electronic gambling
Elise Boddie of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said she
hates to choose between fighting for integration and
struggling for more money. But she admitted that in
light of legal rulings and hostile courts, "Funding
equity cases may be our only hope."
That funding, said Pedro Noguera, can lead to better
schools and maybe even more integrated ones: "If you
can get really outstanding teachers into high-need
areas and really outstanding programs . . . then
you're going to attract middle-class kids of all
races," he said. "Quality is what is ultimately going
to bring people in, -- whites and Asians as well as
middle-class blacks and Hispanics."
But it will be a long hard road. And many experts,
while recognizing the promise of Brown, see few
reasons for optimism on its much-observed anniversary.
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