In a speech focusing on inequality, State Education Commissioner John King singled out New York City’s school enrollment policies as one of the factors fueling segregation nearly 60 years after the idea of “separate but equal” was ruled unconstitutional.

Speaking at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, King pointed to a recent report that found New York state’s schools to be the most segregated in the country. One reason, he said, is that district boundaries and school zones within districts have been drawn up in a way that “actually foster segregation by class.”

“There are places where you can look, including New York City, where blocks away students are separated by economic status,” King said. “Schools that serve mostly wealthy students blocks away from schools that serve mostly high-needs students, and we know that that segregation breeds inequality.”

King’s speech comes three days before the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. The milestone has renewed interest in school integration policies, a central theme of a two-day conference at New York University later this week.

Researchers have pointed to many factors to explain why few city schools reflect the diversity of the school system, which is 40 percent Hispanic, 28 percent black, 16 percent Asian and 15 percent white.

One reason is that most elementary schools admit students based on geographic zones that often reflect neighborhoods that are socioeconomically segregated. Another is that one-third of middle and high school seats are filled through selective admissions processes, and another is the rise of charter schools, which often operate in low-income communities with specific missions to serve students of color. 

At a recent town hall meeting in District 15, Chancellor Carmen Fariña was asked whether she or the de Blasio administration planned to take action to create a more racially or socioeconomically integrated school system. Fariña said there were internal discussions happening about how to diversify the city’s specialized high schools, but offered no specifics about broader policies.

“I think it’s a school-by-school decision right now, but eventually there will be some decisions made citywide,” Fariña said.

District 15, and neighboring District 13, have been the center of a few grassroots efforts to create more integrated schools. This year, the city’s first district elementary school with lottery preferences for low-income students and English language learners opened there, while some parents are working to integrate a Park Slope middle school that has long been shunned by the neighborhood’s wealthier residents.

The district boundaries are also the site of disparities like the ones King mentioned in his remarks. One well-known example is P.S. 321 in Park Slope, where just 9 percent of students qualify for lunch subsidies and 18 percent are black or Hispanic. The school is less than half a mile from District 13’s P.S. 282, where more than 50 percent of students qualify for lunch subsidies and 89 percent are black or Hispanic, though the surrounding neighborhoods are broadly similar.

King, the first African-American and Puerto Rican education commissioner in New York, has raised concerns about New York City’s enrollment policies before. In 2012, King urged the city to change its high school admissions system so that it didn’t concentrate students with the highest needs into the same schools.

But in his speech Wednesday, he made it clear that Brown v. Board’s legacy should be carried out by raising standards for students, through implementation of the Common Core learning standards, and for teachers, through new teacher evaluations.

“None of this will pay off if we don’t teach to high standards and hold ourselves accountable,” King said.

King also sharply criticized calls to slow down implementation of the State Education Department’s policies, particularly the Common Core, which have come from the state teachers union and elected officials. He said that doing so would further increase inequality.

“If they succeed in their destructive goal of crippling the landmark advancement—of 45 states committing to college and career ready expectations for all students—it will be a setback to the cause of greater equality in our schools,” King said. “And that would be a disgrace.”

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