In the mostly pessimistic debate over school segregation here’s a reason for optimism: For the first time in decades, we have the possibility — if not yet the reality — of more economically, and also racially, integrated public schools in many neighborhoods in New York City. And there are heartening examples at the grassroots level of parents and school principals working toward that goal.
Meaningful integration, both economic and racial, is possible only if there is a critical mass of middle-class parents willing to send their children to public schools. And, as our new report “The Paradox of Choice” reveals, even as economic and racial segregation in elementary schools has stubbornly persisted over the past 10 years, the number of middle-class families sending their children to those schools, an ethnically mixed cohort, has grown significantly during that time as well.
Why does that matter? All parents want the best for their children and work hard to ensure they succeed. But low-income parents, many of whom are black and Latino, face many barriers to success – including limited access to high performing, well-resourced schools.
When their children enroll in schools with high concentrations of poverty, they face daunting odds. Even the best teachers have trouble gaining traction if a large portion of their pupils miss school because they are homeless or have chronic illnesses that are correlated with poverty, such as asthma.
Schools that serve a mix of children of different incomes have an easier time attracting and training high-quality staff and can devote more time to children who need the most help.
That’s why the uptick in middle-class enrollment should be good news for everyone. The proportion of kindergarten pupils in New York City who are eligible for free lunch, a common measure of poverty, declined from 80 percent in 2006-07 to 69 percent in 2016-17. The number of kindergartners enrolled in public school increased by 11,000 to 76,000 over the same period. Those new students represent a mix of black, white, Asian, Hispanic, and multi-racial kids; the vast majority are not eligible for free lunch.
The recent surge in middle-class public school parents aligns with another fact of life in New York. Unlike some other cities, people of different incomes sometimes live close to one another, with public housing and modest walk-up apartments abutting luxury high-rises and brownstones.
All of which is to say: If, as a city, we want to mix students of different economic backgrounds without building some elaborate busing infrastructure, we can.
So if this potential for greater economic integration exists, why hasn’t it kicked in? Here’s the reality. Just because middle-class parents are sending their kids to public school doesn’t mean they are sharing classrooms with low-income children. In fact, our research found that nearly half of white parents and more than half of black parents in gentrifying neighborhoods opt out of their zoned schools and enroll their children in schools of choice — usually with higher test scores and fewer low-income children.
That leaves the ordinary zoned schools with higher proportions of needy children and, because budgets are based on school enrollments, less money to serve them.
Take District 13 in Fort Greene, a rapidly gentrifying area of Brooklyn. The free lunch rate for kindergarten children living in the district declined from 74 percent in 2006-07 to 50 percent in 2016-17.
But barely one-third of the children in the district enrolled in their neighborhood elementary schools. The rest have enrolled in gifted programs, charter schools, or other traditional schools outside their neighborhood, leaving some of the neighborhood schools with free lunch rates as high as 100 percent.
Still, there is a counter-trend, still too small to show up in the data, of racially and economically diverse groups of parents organizing to stay in their neighborhood schools. The Bed-Stuy Parents Committee in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Live Here Learn Here in Crown Heights, and Jackson Heights People for Public Schools are three multi-racial parent groups working to support their neighborhood schools in Brooklyn and Queens.
Fear of displacement is high among low-income families in these neighborhoods. Understandably, many low-income families say that they want more resources for their schools, not necessarily more middle-class families. If integration is going to work, newcomers and long-time residents have to work together to ensure that everyone’s concerns are addressed.
For example, parents at P.S. 9 in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn organized anti-eviction workshops, helping to ease long-timers’ legitimate worries. City housing policy to protect tenants and create affordable housing can make a difference, too.
Public schools, at their best, have the ability to bring us together, to help us understand one another. Today, more New York families have confidence in our public schools – as shown by increasing enrollments, performance, and graduation rates. We are also engaged in a public conversation about economic and racial integration – from the Schools Chancellor to our children themselves. Together, we must press for an equitable distribution of resources to ensure high-quality teachers and leaders across the system, and classrooms that reflect the diversity that makes our city rich. From my 15 years of visiting classrooms for InsideSchools, I know that our public schools are not a zero-sum game with a fixed number of quality seats. We need to keep expanding access to high-performing schools, especially in low-income neighborhoods, and integration is one of the strategies to get us there.
Clara Hemphill is the founding editor of InsideSchools and the director of Education Policy at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. This is a slightly revised version of an Op-Ed that originally appeared in the New York daily News on May 6, 20018. This version was originally published by Urban Matters.