Last summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped into one of the most racially divided school districts in New York City and promised a “bigger vision” for promoting school diversity.
On Tuesday morning, that vision was unveiled — with no public appearances from city officials.
Neither schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña nor de Blasio held public events or press conferences to explain the plan, nor did they publicly take questions from reporters. In recent months, de Blasio has made appearances to promote initiatives large and small: to announce more air conditioning in city schools, an expansion of universal pre-K, and a summer reading drive. On Monday, both leaders appeared at a press conference about physical education.
The mayor and chancellor have faced criticism for not being aggressive enough in integrating the city’s schools and have often described the plan released Tuesday as their attempt to tackle the problem. The decision not to take questions about their plan or explain it in person, some observers said, may showcase their reluctance to embrace the cause.
“When the leadership of a school system and a city does not make a public statement or press availability, it signals something about their desire to truly make this a stake in the ground,” said Josh Starr, a former schools superintendent in Connecticut and Maryland, who is currently the CEO of PDK International.
Their press strategy for making the announcement also contributed to the perception that they were not interested in a vigorous public debate.
Before the plan was unveiled, city officials approached several publications — including Chalkbeat — to offer exclusive glimpses at certain portions of it. But they insisted that reporters not contact outside sources for comment on the plan. (The city’s education department often asks for embargoes when it offers advance notice of policy announcements, but almost never asks reporters not to solicit outside perspectives.)
Education department spokesman Will Mantell said the way the city announced the plan is not unusual. He noted that reporters would be allowed to individually interview senior education officials Tuesday — including the chancellor.
“I would push back on the idea that we are taking fewer questions or doing less interaction with the press than we would normally do,” Mantell said in an interview.
Asked why there was no press conference to announce a plan that had been in the works for many months, a mayoral spokeswoman wrote in an email that “the mayor has spoken about this plan countless times and will happily continue to now that the plan is out.”
Key integration advocates have previously complained that there has not been sufficient public discussion of the plan before it was released, but Mantell said there would be a public process going forward. The city has created an advisory group that will evaluate the city’s current diversity goals and come up with formal recommendations by June 2018.
“The crux of the plan,” Mantell said, “is that we’re putting together a public school advisory group that is going put together public recommendations.”
Starr, the former schools chief, said the political sensitivity of school segregation may help explain the decision to not come forward with a full plan all at once.
School integration “deals with issues of white people recognizing the privilege that they have and it confronts the very design of the system that currently exists,” Starr said. “I understand the desire to put it out in bits and pieces.”