Public schools

Is Everyone Who Opposes a New School Zoning Plan in Brooklyn Racist?

"Controlled choice" is supposed to fix inequality in New York public schools. It might make everything worse.


In hindsight, I should have suspected we had crossed over some bizarre new threshold of weaponized policy rhetoric when the education bureaucrats selling a new middle school admissions system to an auditorium full of brow-furrowing Brooklyn parents began their PowerPoint slideshow with a black-and-white picture of a family celebrating the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education

It was the summer of 2018, after all, not the spring of 1954, in the heart of progressive Park Slope, not Pentecostal Topeka. And most relevantly to how the next 13 months of strategic citizen-shaming and pre-emptive silencing would go, the "segregation" under discussion was not an airtight set of rules created and strictly controlled by government, but rather a dynamic and mostly voluntary clustering and unclustering of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic population subgroups out of and then back into 11 public schools and their environs, in one of the country's most famously diverse cities. We were being invited to feel segregationist shame about the distribution of a middle school population that's 42 percent Latino, 32 percent white, 12 percent Asian, and 12 percent black.

"While in many ways we feel like we've come a long way [since Brown]," Adam Lubinsky of the urban planning/architecture firm WXY Studio said at the presentation (misleadingly billed as a community feedback "discussion"), "there has been a real process since the '80s of public schools beginning to re-segregate. And a lot of that has to do with the way choice policies have been utilized…New York City has one of the most segregated school districts in the country; in many respects, the most segregated school district in the country." Thus in one short paragraph we leap from the specter of Bull Connor barricading the schoolhouse door to the same basic effect being produced by…yuppie parents trying to enroll their kids at the STEM-focused middle school? 

My wife and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. After all, we were sitting on the corner of Grand Army Plaza, an Arc de Triomphe–style monument to the victorious Union armies of the North. Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball less than a mile away; two miles the other direction gets you to Abolitionist Place, a crucial stop along the Underground Railroad. You would be hard-pressed to find within a one-hour walk any city block that voted even 10 percent for Donald Trump. MSNBC host Chris Hayes lives nearby; Spike Lee's old neighborhood isn't far, and the Park Slope Co-Op down the street boasts one of the single most politically correct message boards in the history of the internet. Fifties Birmingham this ain't.  

But what I failed to initially comprehend on that hot August night is that the progressive sensibility and social justice sensitivity of the target audience was not grounds for building consensus, but a weakness to exploit in the name of ramming through a divisive policy change with minimal public objection. In what has become the education playbook for the city of New York, and a political tactic that threatens to jump the banks from Blue State America to some policy terrain near you, activists, government officials, and even journalists are recklessly deploying the scarlet letter of racism to clear out potential dissent.

New York Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza is the uncontested champion of this foul new form. At a contentious City Council meeting in May 2019, when asked about his preference for scrapping the entrance exam to New York's nine specialized high schools (which enroll disappointingly few African Americans and a disproportionate number of Asians), Carranza snarled: "Integration doesn't lower academic achievement for any student; it improves it. Yet I can't tell you how many times I hear in this discussion where there's an equation [of] diversity and a lowering of academic students. I will call that racist every time I hear it….So if you don't want me to call you on it, don't say it."

Italics mine, to emphasize the message that local parents, educators, and politicians are hearing loud and clear.

'It Has a Chilling Effect on Parents Speaking Out'

The day after Carranza's outburst, I found myself in a carpool, organized by an angry mom, headed to the first public meeting at which the initial results of our district's radical new middle school admissions policy, known as the Diversity Plan, would be presented. The plan, which the Department of Education (DOE) hopes will be a model for the whole city, scrapped all consideration of student performance—the gifted and talented school no longer screens for gift or talent, the arts school no longer considers aptitude in drawing or music—imposing instead an across-the-board mandate that 52 percent of a school's incoming class either qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch, speak a language other than English at home, or live in temporary housing. That 52 percent figure matches the proportions for the district as a whole, but is unevenly distributed throughout neighborhoods and at individual institutions, ranging in the latter from just 20 percent at the math and science school to 97 percent in the immigrant-heavy Sunset Park neighborhood.

Middle schools within our District 15 are not residentially zoned; instead, parents rank up to 12 preferences, students are assigned random lottery numbers, and an algorithm is supposed to sort everything out. With the removal of any student-picking discretion on the school side, that effectively hands first priority at in-demand locations to those in the designated 52 percent. This approach is known as "controlled choice," as in parents try to choose according to what they think is best for their child, but the district controls the final decision based on a mixture of chance and demographic design. 

Completely off the table, and indeed invoked as a bogeyman to be avoided at all costs, is my preferred policy, which would be to open up maximum choice and allow for the maximum number of qualifying charters throughout New York's entire public system, much like New Orleans has done after Hurricane Katrina. 

To the surprise of no one familiar with probabilities, when the first post-Diversity Plan school-designations were announced in April 2019, a large chunk of us 48 percenters came out unhappy. Sitting next to me in the carpool was one such woman, herself a schoolteacher of modest means, who was anguished that her son, like a statistically anomalous number of kids from my daughter's highly regarded and comparatively affluent (and white) elementary school, had been assigned a low-performing middle school 40 minutes away that didn't even make her top 12. Angry Mom really wanted Teacher Mom to speak out at the meeting, so that district bureaucrats would have to contend with a knowledgeable and sympathetic educator. But the teacher just gave a fatalistic shrug. "White Carroll Gardens mom?" she said ruefully, referring to our expensive brownstone neighborhood. (She would eventually speak very tentatively at the end of a long and heated meeting, with the tension in the room so thick it drove her to tears…but we'll get to that.) 

"I hate the way they are shutting down dissent, calling all dissent 'racism,'" Heather Herron-Libson, a mother of three public school kids, told me in late June. 

Fear of being labeled a bigot has animated nearly every one of the now hundreds of conversations I've had with local parents about the Diversity Plan and other elements of Carranza's "equity" agenda. (In addition to my eldest daughter being in the first affected class of incoming sixth graders, my youngest daughter will enter kindergarten right after a controversial new elementary school rezoning kicks in. I've, uh, been to a lot of meetings.) 

Quotes in news articles from skeptical parents are almost always anonymous. Moms worry about being tarred as a "racist from 1950s Alabama"; dads daydream about organizing a "secret resistance" of pseudonymous critics. "No one wants to be 'rich white person number two' being publicly shamed," one of my fellow Brooklyn dads told the New York Post, in reference to when Carranza had retweeted a Raw Story article (complete with video) that carried the headline "WEALTHY WHITE MANHATTAN PARENTS ANGRILY RANT AGAINST PLAN TO BRING MORE BLACK KIDS TO THEIR SCHOOLS." The chancellor later apologized for the tweet, but the lesson was learned: Offer feedback at a public meeting about a policy that impacts your children, and you may find yourself depicted as a monster on social media, with the help of a government official making $345,000 a year. 

"It has a chilling effect on parents speaking out," noted Leonard Silverman, a lawyer and PTA president in Manhattan, in another Post article. "Some are afraid of being branded 'racist' or 'privileged,' which they feel is the narrative coming from way up high."

At the May meeting I attended, District 15 Community Education Council (CEC) member* Neal Zephyrin wasted little time in his opening remarks praising Carranza's I will call that racist warning of the day before. "I think it's good to see that we're calling a spade a spade," Zephyrin said. "It's comforting to have a chancellor who is upfront."

Next to talk was Sadye Campoamor, director of community affairs in the district's Division of Community Empowerment, Partnerships, and Communications. "We are more separate and more unequal than ever," Campoamor postulated. "Our systems have currently prioritized some people over others. And so we are trying to dismantle that."

The language of dismantling privilege is the kind of thing one normally associates with liberal arts colleges or clickbaity political websites staffed by 23-year-olds. But as the wider world discovered in late May, when the Post reprinted a slide on "White Supremacy Culture" from a mandatory DOE seminar, such jargon has escaped the laboratory and begun infiltrating government offices. Part of Carranza's $23 million program to root out "implicit bias," the slide, taken from a book called Dismantling Racism, warned teachers to be on the lookout for such supposedly white supremacist hallmarks as "individualism," "objectivity," and even "worship of the written word." Attendees were helpfully given a "White Privilege Exercise" sheet to work through their own complicity.

Explained Matt Gonzales, a diversity adviser to the DOE and director of the integration advocacy group New York Appleseed: "Having to talk about someone's own whiteness is a requirement for them to become liberated."

Not every participant experienced the joys of liberation. A few days after the white supremacy slide was publicized, three senior school administrators filed a $90 million discrimination lawsuit against Carranza and the department, alleging that they were unfairly demoted as part of the chancellor's crusade against "toxic" whiteness. "Under Carranza's leadership," the suit alleges, "DOE has swiftly and irrevocably silenced, sidelined and punished plaintiffs and other Caucasian female DOE employees on the basis of their race, gender and unwillingness to accept their other colleagues' hateful stereotypes about them." 

Carranza's defiant response contained not a small amount of projection. "There are forces in this city that want me to just be quiet," the chancellor said at a fiery press conference. "There are forces in this city that want me to be the good minority and just be quiet, don't say a word, don't bring the race issue up. I will not be silenced! I will not be quiet!"

Brad Lander, my local city councilman, accused an entire newspaper of racism just for reporting about the lawsuit. "The NYPost is really showing their true colors here," Lander tweeted. "They cannot stand the idea of a world where people-of-color are truly equal. Looking seriously at the legacy of racial injustice is anathema to them."

As temperatures continued to rise in mid-June, seven of Lander's colleagues on the New York City Council, including two on the Committee on Education, sent a joint letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio declaiming Carranza's "contentious rhetoric," and urging that the chancellor be fired if he "continues to divide this city." The councilors, along with two co-signing members of the New York State Assembly, concluded: "Rather than taking criticism into honest consideration, Chancellor Carranza and his administration respond by making accusations of their own," including "divisive statements directed toward parents and students."

Having grown accustomed to slinging around the r-word with impunity, though, New York's power brokers were not about to drop their weapon in the face of a little pushback. "This racially charged smear campaign is the only thing dividing our city," de Blasio spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein thundered. "Anyone backing it should be ashamed." 

'Like an Iranian Presidential Election'

All public opinion research over the past few decades, thankfully, shows Americans becoming markedly more tolerant of interracial marriage, living next to people of a different race/ethnicity, and having their kids attend schools with mixed populations. Concurrently, tolerance for demonstrated intolerance has gone down, and penalties for racist infractions have increased. Being deemed a bigot these days is bad for job security, even sometimes when the evidence is thin.  

John Schnatter, the outspoken conservative founder of pizza chain Papa John's, was forced to resign as chairman of his own company in 2018 after vividly describing acts of racist violence during a role-playing exercise that was designed to increase workplace sensitivity. Netflix fired Chief Communications Officer Jonathan Friedland that year not for being a racist, but by using the n-word in a company meeting about what words to avoid. A 23-year-old Chipotle employee named Dominique Moran was fired in late 2018 after a video went viral of her telling two black customers, "You gotta pay 'cause you never have money when you come in." (It turned out later that one of the men indeed specialized in making videos of himself dining and dashing from restaurants, after which Chipotle offered Moran her job back. She declined.)  

With the ubiquity of camera phones and the rise of social media, civilians expressing opinions about controversial public policies are just one uncharitable interpretation away from having their lives upended. "If you're going to be called a racist every time you're concerned about your child's education," yet another anonymous Brooklyn dad told The Wall Street Journal in May 2019, "it destroys the dialogue."

A dialogue destroyed is another way of describing a monologue. Which is precisely what I observed during that initial August 2018 presentation on school desegregation. Scheduled at the last minute, one month before the Diversity Plan was ratified, at the height of get-out-of-town-if-you-can-afford-it season in sweltering New York, the gathering still attracted around 175 people at a venue originally suitable for 40 (we moved rooms). The meeting's first public comment—which, not coincidentally, was also the first mention, 45 minutes in, of whether the new system would lead to better outcomes for kids and schools—came only because a mom finally butted in to ask. She was quickly dispatched, then Councilman Lander quashed every subsequent attempt to interrupt, telling people instead to wait for smaller breakout groups afterward. In our breakout group, 20 pent-up parents rifled questions at a hapless DOE employee, who rolled her eyes a lot and sporadically tried to reassure us that middle school parents always get "anxious" about their little ones. No notes were taken. So much for feedback.

"It was like an Iranian presidential election," a—you guessed it!—anonymous dad told the Post after the meeting. "It didn't matter what you said or did."

Afterward, I was astonished to read these lines in The New York Times, by education reporter Eliza Shapiro. "There has been little public resistance to the District 15 plan," Shapiro asserted. "Lander said his office has received only a few dozen emails about the proposal, most of them supportive." Turns out that if you carefully manage public displays of opinion, you can depict parental reaction any which way, with a helpful assist from the newspaper of record.

The piece, typical of Shapiro's framing of education issues, was headlined "De Blasio Is Stalled on School Integration, but Brooklyn Parents Have a Plan," despite the fact that the main feature of said plan—removing all "screens" related to student performance—was opposed by fully 58 percent of local parents surveyed. (Ah, came the ready rejoinder, that's because richer, whiter parents had a higher rate of response!)

In a heavy-handed bit of irony, the admissions changes were unveiled in September 2018 by de Blasio and Lander at the popular gifted and talented middle school that both men's children had already graduated from: Park Slope's M.S. 51. "The current…admissions process presents itself as a system of choice and meritocracy, but it functions as a system for hoarding privilege," Lander lamented in his announcement. "My family has benefited from that privilege, and we've got to honestly look at it and be willing to talk about it." 

Any honest conversation about the admissions process of M.S. 51 and other turnaround successes should, but rarely does, begin with the acknowledgment that the school a few decades back became the first in the district to offer specialization, in a conscious effort to lure back upper-middle-class families who had abandoned the area's decaying public system. And it worked!

M.S. 51's success begat copycats: Soon there was an arts school, then a math and science cluster, and before long a once-shunned district of 11 middle schools began to at least have a "Big Three." As the rest of the city made similar reforms, and also added charters to the mix, school "uptake"—the percentage of resident K–8 kids enrolled in government-provided educational institutions—jumped from 67 percent in 2000 to 76 percent in 2010. District 15 increased by more than 6,000 students between 2006 and 2016. Test scores went up. The Big Three became more like five or six. Sounds like a win-win, right?

Wrong. The kids coming in were too pale and prosperous, avatars of the gentrification routinely fretted about by local journalists, many of whom are recent Brooklyn transplants themselves. "By 2017," the report unveiling the Diversity Plan stated, "the number of white students enrolled in District 15 had almost doubled from 2007 and white students represented 50% or more of the total school population at the [Big Three] schools. When the white student population doubled during this period, 70% of that increase went to those same three school schools." Meanwhile, rejection rates for black and Hispanic students at those schools were disproportionately high. 

In March 2014, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles came out with a highly publicized study titled "New York State's Extreme School Segregation: Inequality, Inaction and a Damaged Future." The report, which used such terminology as "apartheid schools" to characterize charters whose populations are just 1 percent white, was deeply embarrassing to a city fond of its liberal self-image. The main policy recommendation was "controlled choice." As Lynn Shon, a district middle school* STEM teacher, exulted in a press release celebrating the Diversity Plan, "When our schools reflect the diversity of our city, we will ALL face the most urgent problems facing our city and nation….Schools should be centers of social change and justice, and we desperately needed this to get everyone on board."

But as school integration advocates learned to their dismay in the 1970s, humans don't always appreciate being chess pieces in the hands of enlightened planners. The big question about the Diversity Plan was whether parents would accept having their kids schlepped across town to schools they didn't want.

On April 15, 2019, all fifth graders in our district received their designations. Straight away, parents in my daughter's French dual-language program (DLP) started banging out anguished emails. "It's a disaster for us," mom Magali Selosse wrote to me. After extensively researching and touring and skipping work to prioritize choices, Selosse was assigned to "a school we never heard of…45 minutes away from home. With the lowest scores you can possibly imagine." Like the parents of six other DLP kids who were given schools they didn't even list, she had zero intention of accepting the assignment.

And yet on April 16, here was the headline atop Eliza Shapiro's New York Times piece: "Facing Segregated Schools, Parents Took Integration Into Their Own Hands. It's Working." When I pointed out to Shapiro on Twitter that we won't know whether it's "working" until we hear about how many parents appealed their decisions, how many had those appeals accepted, how many were opting for charters or private schools, and how many were moving out of the district, she replied, inaccurately: "Your point about families fleeing to private schools and charters isn't quite right, since the enrollment cycles for both those systems are now closed. Have a good one."

In late June, we started to learn more. Around 450 District 15 fifth graders, or 17 percent of the incoming class of new middle schoolers, appealed their designations, up from 350 the year before (citywide, appeals tend to be at around 12 percent). And only 14 appeals were approved this year, compared to 59 in 2018. That means the number of objectively disgruntled families increased from around 290 to 435, or from about 11 percent of incoming sixth graders to 16 percent. That's a big jump. One school alone—the Sunset Park destination 40 minutes away that so many of our fellow DLP parents were assigned to—saw appeals jump from 22 to 50.

No matter: Even before the crucial first-year enrollment numbers came in, Lander celebrated the beginning of the school year with a Buzzfeed op-ed headlined, "New York City Schools Got A Little Less Segregated This Week. The Winner Is Everyone." Apparently, some people just didn't understand that they had won. And it wasn't hard to read between Lander's lines for an explanation for their disgruntlement. "Segregation is central to the ideology of white supremacy and the reproduction of America's racial caste system. It should be opposed root and branch," he wrote in his opening paragraph. And then later: "Integration efforts are often met with backlash as white (and now sometimes Asian) parents feel something is being taken from them."

The District 15 experiment is being watched closely watched in the rest of the city, and even throughout the country. At the end of August 2019, de Blasio's hand-picked School Diversity Advisory Group came out with a radical set of system-wide changes that basically mimicked our local plan—remove all screens (hell, remove the very words "gifted and talented"), get rid of single-test admissions criteria, and push every school in a given district to have the exact same demographics as the district as a whole within three years, as the borough within five years, and as the whole city within 10. The sheer logistics of such an enterprise would make '70s-style busing seem modest, which is one reason that both the New York Post and the largest local teacher's union were in rare agreement that the plan was a non-starter. 

The District 15 matriculation numbers, still unknown at press time, could have profound implications for the Diversity Plan, for Carranza's whole equity agenda, and even for Bill de Blasio's longshot presidential campaign. If school uptake goes down measurably, that would impact funding (which is based in part on enrollment numbers) and quell citywide political enthusiasm for heavy-handed integration efforts. The change could, in fact, have the opposite of its intended effect.

"San Francisco Had an Ambitious Plan to Tackle School Segregation," ran an April 25, 2019, New York Times headline. "It Made It Worse." The article, not written by Eliza Shapiro, was an excellent demonstration project of unintended consequences and the differences between progressive theory and individual practice. The only important detail the piece left out was the name of the school chief driving that failed integration attempt: Richard Carranza.

'Sorry, That's Racist'

At our May 2 meeting about the admissions results, before we knew about the sharp increase in appeals, a dad, who appeared to be Scandinavian, prefaced his question by saying "I'm super for this whole plan. I'm absolutely for it." He then mentioned that his child did not get into any of their nine preferred schools, and in that light asked the CEC and assembled district officials what they planned to do to reach out to parents who were unhappy, and convince them to stay in the public system. It was a good question. And the answers were telling.

First, Campoamor asked the dad to think of the "broader context," and said, "There's never [been] an enrollment process in any district where we don't hear, 'I didn't apply, I didn't get, I didn't do this.' It's unfortunate." When another audience member pointed out that she wasn't addressing the dad's question, District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop cut in. "Part of my answer is, you're not going to like it," she began. A world-class understatement.

"There is a perception that because a child is a child of poverty, and because a child is a child that lives in a homeless shelter, or because the child is a child of color, that their potential and their ability is less than that of a child who has more opportunities," Skop said, at a meeting in which no such sentiment was expressed. "I have yet to see a child whose capacity is defined by either their ethnicity, their home language, or the pocketbook of their parents. That's number one, and I do not apologize for that view." 

Having destroyed that strawman, Skop went in for the kill. 

"This is a process, I apologize if you're not happy. I apologize if you feel that your child was not placed to a school that is where you wanted your child to go. But the reality is we have 11 good, strong schools. I also say to you, think about what it is you are looking at when you evaluate these schools. And think about, is it fair to say that some of our children are worth more than other of our children? Because that's the belief system. And I know where you're going with this—'You watered down the schools.'"

The Scandinavian dad, showing a restraint I could never match in the face of such ugly accusations, simply replied: "That actually wasn't my point at all."

Campoamor* then took another swing. "We're a public education system. We welcome you….If you need another choice because it's whatever, then that is your prerogative," she offered. Then CEC board member Antonia Ferraro added: "There are only so many private schools that cost…a lot of money; they only have so many seats. We can't stop you from moving out of the city. But you're going to not get your tax deduction if you move upstate."

To which the man, allowing a hint of exasperation to show, asked, "How do you know I can?"

This is how a supporter of the Diversity Plan was treated when he attempted to ask a reasonable question—with personalized derision and inaccurate stereotyping. For those more outwardly skeptical of the plan, things got ugly.

One dad from my carpool asked an also-reasonable question about how schools will adjust to different levels and mixes of learning achievement than they are accustomed to. Unfortunately, he used as shorthand for these different blocs of student achievers their average grade levels—twos, threes, fours. Zephyrin pounced. 

"I'm sorry, but I find it offensive, I do. It is offensive," Zephyrin said. "Because like Carranza said yesterday when he was speaking in front of the City Council…if you say, 'Oh I support the plan. I'm not racist, and I support the plan, but the schools are going to be diluted, watered down…' He said: 'Sorry, that's racist.' And that's what it is!" The room erupted. 

After some back and forth, former CEC treasurer Charles Star* threw his hands up at the whole question about what to do with unhappy families. "I don't know how you would address the question without it sounding like, 'What are you going to do about white flight?' Honestly, that is basically what the question is, and I don't know how you can ask a panel of people who have spent the last two years working on a Diversity Plan how we are going to cater to the parents who reject the idea of diversity….I don't know what to say to you." 

It was about then that Teacher Mom, against her initial judgment, inserted herself into the conversation. "Sorry, but I just feel like we need to remember that these are…this is my 10-year-old," she said, choking back sobs. "Just remember, we're all talking about our kids. They go to bed with their stuffed animals, and now they're getting onto two trains to go to school." 

A few minutes later, to the applause of some CEC board members, a visibly irritated Sunset Park mom directed her ire at the teacher. "I just want to name, there's a lot of privilege in being able to be in a space where you can air out your concerns," she said. "And I also want to name that many of us have lived lives where we don't have the privilege to be in a space to cry about the things that we have to do on a daily basis." On the carpool ride home, Teacher Mom worried with some bitterness about whether there were any reporters in the auditorium who would twist her words to make her sound racist. 

Never mind that: Zephyrin was up to the task. According to a Gothamist article after the meeting, the CEC member did acknowledge that at least half the audience expressed disappointment at the Diversity Plan, "but he felt some were using racially 'coded' language." And we all know how racists should be treated.

"There are going to be privileges that are spread out more," Zephyrin said. "That's the result of equity." And if you don't want to be called out as a racist, don't complain.

*CORRECTIONS: Neal Zephryin was originally misidentified as CEC president. Charles Star quote was initially misattributed to Neal Zephryin. Sadye Campoamor quote was originally misattributed to Antonia Ferraro. Shon's place of employment was originally misidentified as being a "Big Three" school.