This article originally
appeared in the Gotham
Stuyvesant High School is one of the most vivid symbols
of the consequences of decades of systematic racism in the United
States. Black and Hispanic children make up about 72 percent of
the citywide enrollment in the New York City public schools. At
Stuyvesant – the most prestigious public school in the city – they
make up less than six percent of enrollment.
In fact, the percentage of Black kids who go to Stuyvesant
has decreased dramatically in the last quarter century. Twenty-six
years ago, Black students represented almost 13 percent of the student
body at Stuyvesant; today they represent 2.7 percent.
I'm not implying that the administration at Stuyvesant
is made up of racists – they must be remarkable people to run such
a wonderful school. Black and Latino students do not have access
to Stuyvesant because they have not been adequately prepared to
compete with the other students applying for a limited number of
spots. What the racial gap in admissions represents is the devastating
end result of the failure to educate Black and Latino children effectively
from the age of two and a half up to their 8th grade year. It is
impossible to improve the inferior quality of the education that
minority children receive without confronting the fact that they
are attending increasingly segregated schools; separate is still
unequal. Yet that is exactly what New York policymakers are trying
to do. Until it begins to follow the lead of several smaller cities
across the country, New York's school system will continue to fail
to serve the majority of its students.
The Resegregation of America’s Schools
Segregation has returned to public education with
a vengeance, as a result of years of federal policies that started
in the early 1990s when the US Supreme Court and the local federal
courts began to rip apart the legacy of the Supreme Court's 1954
school desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education. The percentage
of Black children who now go to integrated schools has dropped to
its lowest level since 1968.
New York State is the most segregated state for Black
and Latino children in America: seven out of eight Black and Latino
kids here go to segregated schools. The majority of them go to schools
where no more than two to four percent of the children are White.
Only Illinois, Michigan, and California come close to this abysmal
record. The level of segregation statewide is due largely to New
York City, which is probably the country's most segregated city.
When it comes to residential integration and school
integration, New York has an undeserved reputation for progressive
values. For the last 40 years it has been one of the most regressive
cities in America, in many ways unaffected by the Brown decision.
The courts never tried to integrate New York, and the major media,
including the New York Times, consistently opposed any drastic measures
that would significantly integrate the city's system.
Bloomberg and Klein’s Education Reforms
The position of chancellor of New York City schools
is an almost impossible job. I sometimes think that job was created
so that one man or woman in New York could die for our sins every
year. Like it or not, Chancellor Joel Klein's real job description
is to mediate the separation of the races and put the best possible
face on a flagrantly unequal system.
The Bloomberg administration's educational reforms
have been centered on mayoral control of the schools. This probably
gives the mayor and the chancellor better tools to approach the
problems in the schools, and it is to their credit that they have
used this power to get rid of the rote and drill, stimulus-response
curriculum that was being used in failing schools across the city.
But we have wasted too much time in the last 20 years
fiddling around with governance arrangements. The fact is that whether
the school systems I visit are governed directly by the mayor, independently,
or through an appointed school board or an elected one, virtually
all cities face the same calamity: a devastating gulf in the quality
of education offered to minority kids as opposed to White kids.
New York City and Small Schools
Alleged panaceas have been introduced repeatedly in
every urban district since I first walked into a classroom in 1964.
Every five years there's a "solution" to the problems
of separate and unequal education – a solution that never addresses
the problems of either separate or unequal.
The newest magic pill that is being advertised is
small schools, and it is one that Bloomberg and Klein have bought
Small schools are usually less chaotic than big schools;
they are sometimes more intimate and relaxed than big schools. But
the small school concept, which no one is proposing for the schools
in White suburban districts, is essentially an anti-riot strategy
for segregated children, an anti-turbulence measure, a short-term
solution to perceived chaos in large segregated schools. Small,
segregated, and unequal schools are only an incremental improvement
over large, segregated and unequal schools. They don't address the
In fact, in New York City small schools are being
used, intentionally or not, in ways that widen the racial divide.
On the one hand, we're seeing small schools that cater to very artistic,
upscale Greenwich Village families. These schools are overwhelmingly
attractive to White people. On the other hand, we're seeing a proliferation
of so-called small academies for Black and Latino students with
names like Academy of Leadership, or the Academy of Business Enterprise.
(In some other cities such schools are explicitly given names like
the African American Academy). These schools tend to be even more
segregated than larger ones.
At this point New York City, like many cities in America,
is rolling out small schools as this year's trendy attempt to do
an end run around inequality and segregation. It is not going to
work on a significant basis. I predict that within ten years the
entire small schools movement will collapse and be declared a failure.
Reforms That Address the Real Problem
Today, Bloomberg and Klein are trying their best to
sweeten the pill of segregation rather than confronting it. But
they have to confront it, and smaller cities have offered a model
of how to do so.
metropolitan New York City area is one of the most adamantly resistant
sections of the nation, in which there has never been any serious
attempt at voluntary integration programs between the city and the
suburbs. This is in great contrast to St. Louis, Milwaukee, Boston,
and several other cities, all of which have successful suburban
integration programs for inner city children. While some of these
programs were initially begun under court orders, others (Boston's,
for example) are entirely voluntary and are supported by the parents
of the suburbs because they believe that integrated schooling is
of benefit to their own children.
In virtually all of the urban-suburban integration
programs, the high school completion rate and graduation rate for
Black students average 90 to 95 percent or better, and the overwhelming
number of these Black kids go to college. There are waiting lists
for all these programs; in St. Louis there are four applicants for
It is only about a fifteen minute ride from a typical,
segregated Bronx neighborhood to one of the very first suburbs to
the north of the Bronx – Bronxville, for example, one of the most
affluent communities in the United States. It spends nearly $19,000
per pupil, compared to $11,600 in the Bronx. It has zero percent
poverty in its public schools. Only one percent of its students
are Black or Latino. It would be a very short ride for almost any
Bronx child to go to school in Bronxville or any of the other suburbs
immediately to the north.
The chancellor and the mayor ought to be advocating
for cross-district integration with the 40 or 50 affluent suburban
districts that immediately surround New York City. Admittedly, this
step would take extraordinary political audacity.
If he wanted to take a really visionary stance, Mayor
Bloomberg could also turn small schools from institutions that reinforce
segregation into places that help break it down. He could provide
incentives for small schools to be created with the explicit goal
of bringing the poorest children and the richest children, Black,
Latino, White and Asian children together in the same classrooms.
If he were to take that step, and use the small school concept to
achieve that goal, then he would have left behind a really decent
legacy. He would have begun to make a serious dent in the intense
racial isolation that continues to make New York the shame of the
Jonathan Kozol is the author of seven books on
urban education, including Savage
Inequalities, and the winner of the National Book Award.
His most recent book is The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration
of Apartheid Schooling in America.