In May of 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” setting a precedent for ending legally sanctioned racial segregation not just in schools, but in all sectors of American society. The landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision upholding the constitutionality of state laws requiring that black and white children be taught separately, paved the way for the integration of schools, a process to be delegated to district courts and carried out, as a subsequent decision urged, “with all deliberate speed.”
But in the decades after the initial hard-fought integration battles (picture the National Guard troops Eisenhower sent to Little Rock in 1954, or Ruby Bridges escorted to school by U.S. Marshals), the bussing riots, and the lawsuits, resolve softened, and local court orders expired. Sixty years later, many black and Latino students attend schools more segregated than those in the 1970s. Economically disadvantaged students—among whom children of color are drastically overrepresented—continue to lag behind wealthier peers in academic achievement. And earlier this year, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a report revealing that New York State has the most segregated schools in the country.
On May 16 and 17, NYU hosts a two-day conference to mark the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, where scholars, activists, and educators will evaluate the progress that has (or hasn’t) been made in expanding racial equality through education.
NYU Stories checked in with Steinhardt’s Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education Pedro Noguera in advance of the event, which will feature closing remarks by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, to talk about the unique challenges faced by school officials here in New York and what our classrooms might look like in 60 years.
Many school districts have essentially re-segregated now that they’re no longer under court supervision. Is it time to reconsider legally mandated racial percentages to guarantee integration once again?
You need a comprehensive approach. You need to make sure that there’s affordable housing in many communities, and not just concentrate it into certain areas—which reinforces the segregation of schools. But then you also need things like magnet schools and other strategies to produce voluntary integration. We have learned that you can’t force people to participate in a desegregation effort, but you can do things to make it more attractive. We’ve learned that certain kinds of schools—[those] with dual language programs, or a particular theme, say, in the arts or the sciences—will attract people from a diverse background, provided they provide a high-quality education. There are also a small number of schools here in New York City, like School of the Future, where my daughter went, or Beacon High School, that do look at numbers in admissions to make sure there’s a balance in the racial population of the school. And it works—they maintain relatively integrated schools.
Is there a way to make school officials consider more than the “squeaky wheels” who compete for resources that could go to needier students—or to arm disadvantaged families with similar lobbying skills?
I’d say you have to do both. You need elected and appointed leaders who appreciate the importance of maintaining diversity in terms of race and class and keep that at the forefront of their policies. That means making sure, when you create a magnet, that it doesn’t just serve affluent people, but that it is representative. But the poor—poor people of color especially—need to understand why education is important, and need to have the same kind of entitlement that affluent parents have in asserting and advocating for their children. And that requires a bit of organizing and advocacy work.
Why are New York State schools the nation’s most segregated?
What New York did wrong is it did nothing. People attribute a lot of this to the idea of choice—that individuals are choosing where to live and where to put their kids in school. That’s not an accurate reading of history. We have a history in New York of legally sanctioned housing segregation—so that people of color, particularly blacks, were not allowed to move into certain areas. Those areas have stayed white. And that’s reflected in schools. By not taking those issues on through policy, New York State now finds itself singled out as among the most segregated in the country. It’s not just Cuomo, but also the governors before him—none of them have even spoken about it. And Mayor de Blasio is a mayor who’s said inequality is a priority for him, but he’s also been silent on this issue. He’s said nothing at all since this report was released and neither has [New York City Schools Chancellor] Carmen Farina.
You supported the original idea of charter schools, but later resigned from SUNY’s Board of Trustees over concerns that its Charter Schools Institute was undermining rather than improving public schools. What changed your mind?
Charter schools were created initially to be laboratories for innovation—that is to allow us to do things in terms of teaching and learning that were more difficult to do in a traditional public school. And what gives them the ability to be innovative is they’re freed from a lot of the rules and regulations that regular public schools have to work under. The problem is that charter schools have been embraced by [those] who see school improvement as being done through competition, rather than collaboration. So even when we have charter schools that are successful, no one’s learning from those charter schools. They work in isolation.
Do you see any way charters could work as intended—to improve schools for disadvantaged kids?
What we need are policies at a state level that really spell out what role charter schools should play—that hold [them] accountable for being accessible to all kinds of kids. But we also need policies that foster real collaboration. Public schools need to be shaken up and revitalized, and charter schools could play that role if we had policies designed to encourage that.
In New York City, because real estate is such a premium, we house charter schools in the same buildings [as] public schools. And in many cases if the principals are not reasonable people, they end up fighting over the auditorium or the cafeteria. Even more troubling are the iniquities this exposes. Some of the charter schools raise a lot of money, so they’re able to give their kids laptops, iPads, music lessons—and the public school in the same building doesn’t have those things, so the kids are seeing these disparities up close.
It seems like those who can afford private school tuition often choose this option over a New York City public school. Can you imagine that changing?
Well, the larger problem is that New York is almost unlivable for middle class people. The very wealthy have the means to pay private school tuition, which they often do. And [middle class] people with families move to New Jersey or Westchester or Long Island. That means increasingly that the kids in the city’s public schools are from the poorest families. What would be ideal is if the public schools were like the subway system—the only institution in New York that serves almost everybody. You do see affluent people who take the subway, because it’s efficient, it’s relatively clean, and it’s relatively safe. Because of those things it serves all kinds of New Yorkers, and that’s the way it should be for the public schools.
What’s the value in going to school with people of all colors and economic classes?
The majority of children in this country now are from minority backgrounds, so that’s our future. But our schools are becoming increasingly segregated by race and income as our society becomes more diverse. How are we going to learn live together, to work together, if we don’t even know how to communicate because we never were educated together? How will we generate a sense of empathy for other Americans if we don’t identify with them because we don’t interact with them? We always are a nation that’s at risk of becoming more divided, more polarized, and we’ve always looked to our public schools to keep us together. And that institution needs help being the glue.