The Costs of Equity, The Bill We Refuse to Pay: Why Integrating NYC’s Specialized High Schools Is the Right Thing to Do?

Written By David E. Kirkland

On Saturday, June 2nd, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plan to “fix” the “diversity problem” plaguing the city’s specialized high schools. The plan by no measure is perfect, but I do believe that it can move us closer to equity in a system vexed by concentrations of privilege and the violence of opportunity hoarding.
If anything, the Mayor’s tacit acknowledgement that there is a problem when it comes to high school admissions in a city that is majority Black and Brown is a step forward. My sense is that it would be wise for advocates of school integration to build off the momentum of this acknowledgement, not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
I do, however, hold some reservations about the Mayor’s plan to expand the Discovery program. These concerns are not only about the programs effectiveness, but if the program actually works, I’m concerned that its success will reinforce a narrative of elitism already baked into the ideology of “specialized high schools.” Notwithstanding, I know that these schools do exist, and function as opportunity pipelines. As long as they exist exclusively for White and some Asian students, they also function as gatekeeping mechanisms that perpetuate life disparities across racial and socioeconomic groups.
Of course, we who fully advocate for integration would argue for the abolition of such “specialized” (read elite) school settings. However, until we get to the point where we can change public and political sentiment regarding the need for specialized high schools, it is important that we integrate them if only to interrupt, at least in part, the machinery upholding white supremacy and to increase the pool of vulnerable students who will gain access to the opportunities these exclusive sites of the NYC DOE provide.

Another important aspect of the announcement is the Mayor’s promise to engage the state about this issue. The Mayor can and should change admissions policy in places where he can. (It is my belief that he can change policy with the swipe of a pen for 5 of the 8 specialized high schools whose admission policies are not baked into state law.) Regardless, it is the job of advocates to push him to do so. The state also bears an important role in fixing the broken specialized high school enrollment system, and there seems to be some traction in Albany for taking up the conversation of school segregation and challenging longstanding State policies that ensure patterns of apartheid schooling. (I was heartened to read Chancellor Betty Rosa’s comments on the Mayor’s announcement in NYC Mayor’s Office official press release.)

That’s why I have placed myself on record favoring the Mayor plan—acknowledging that we have a diversity problem in our specialized high schools that goes beyond the schools themselves. We’ve had this problem for a long time. Thus, it will be up to the city and the state to fix the problem. You and I are not exempt, either, from our responsibility to support change in the system. It is important that we demand that our elected official hear from the people as our elected officials consider what to fix in and how fix our broken school systems.

Let me more passionately reiterate one key theme: that opponents of school segregation must get behind Mayor de Blasio in his desire to “fix” the city’s very broken specialized high schools. The mayor’s announcement to create policies that support greater access to the City’s specialized high schools is, perhaps, the most significant development this century in relation to public education in New York City because the problem of the 21st Century is the problem of the color line.

In this light, NYU Metro Center is conducting a study comparing life trajectories of students who graduate from specialized high schools in NYC and students graduate from non-specialized high schools. Preliminary findings suggest that students who attend specialized high schools are less likely to be suspended, remediated and labeled, dropout, become (criminal) justice system involved, and so on. These students are also more likely to graduate high school, score higher on college entrance exams, persist and graduate from the nation’s top universities, earn greater income, and live longer.

Not surprisingly, these schools overwhelming serve a racially homogeneous student population that systematically excludes Black and Latinx students. It also overwhelming serves more economically advantage students, making them bastions of privilege (opportunity monopolies) that systemically hoard advantage.

The Mayor’s new policies may or may not stimulate the immensity of opportunity NYC students deserve, but they promise to stimulate necessary conversation about how to create as school system where racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and linguistic diversity is at least possible, and even permissible.

We’ve known for some time that the exclusion of Black and Brown students from the city’s specialized high schools and the kinds of opportunity hoarding enjoyed by more advantaged racial and ethnic communities are in fact de jure (and not de facto) consequences of lingering legacies of racism and white supremacy baked into the fabric of schooling in NYC. I am encouraged, however, that the City seems poised to advance the ever elusive reality of equity, addressing the lingering legacies of racial and class bias, which are pervasive in the public project of schooling throughout the U.S.

Of course, this is just one step in the right direction, but make no mistake about it, it is a giant step forward. In the coming days and months, we must continue, adding to the “fix” policies to advance middle (and elementary) school equity, which also must directly  deal with the problem of high school segregation.

David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.