Brooklyn School Integration Is Totally Working! (Except for Some Non-Compliant Families, but They Probably Hate Diversity)

Middle-school enrollment is down 7% after a trailblazing admissions overhaul; politicians declare victory while insulting those who left.


New York City is on the precipice of the country's most ambitious school-integration program since the days of busing. Just yesterday, City Council passed a bill requiring every school district to create its own "diversity working group" and subsequent action plan. A similar system-wide advisory group recently recommended making "all schools represent the socioeconomic and racial diversity" in the city within 10 years, which would require a logistically massive undertaking.

This "equity" push, which many integration advocates are holding up as a model for the entire country, was spearheaded last year in the middle schools of the Brooklyn district where my daughters both happen to attend. The 2019–20 class of District 15 6th graders, which includes my eldest, is the first to be admitted under a radical new system in which student performance no longer matters. It has been replaced by a "controlled choice" process of a bifurcated lottery (depending on socioeconomic status) that attempts to harmonize parents' school preferences with educational planners' demographic composition targets.

So there's a lot at stake—for families, for the district, for New York, for other cities that follow New York's lead—when it comes to the final fall enrollment picture of District 15's Diversity Plan. Would school demographics change significantly? Would people begin to abandon government-operated institutions for (still-public) charters, or private options, or new districts?

Well, those numbers began to come in yesterday afternoon, and the preliminary answers to those two questions are "yes" and "yes."

After a stage-managed release of selective enrollment information (there isn't yet any publicly available link to the broad data set), the headlines were overwhelmingly about the sharp increase in demographic integration across individual schools: "Drive to Desegregate Brooklyn Public Schools Increases Student Diversity," "Diversity improved in Brooklyn school district thanks to new admissions plan, NYC says," and so on.

Those numbers are indeed dramatic. "Eight of the district's 11 middle schools now enroll sixth grade classes that are between 40% and 75% needy students, compared to only three schools in that range last year," notes the Daily News.

Most salutarily from my point of view, students from neighborhood-zoned elementary schools that once never bothered with the district's so-called "Big Three" middle schools experienced a huge jump in both applications and acceptance. Expanding the opportunities for poorer kids should be at the heart of every educational reform, which is one reason I find it so appalling that Mayor Bill de Blasio and too many other New York officials have such a hostile attitude toward charter schools.

So that's one half of the enrollment picture. What, then, about the other half? Would the new changes lead to (or at least correlate with) more families leaving the system than before?

Those numbers are also dramatic, though downplayed in the reporting and ignored altogether in some of the political self-congratulation. Year-over-year 6th grade enrollment was down 7 percent in 2019, the first decrease of any kind in at least half a decade:

The percentage of applicants who ended up attending a district-run middle school decreased from 63 percent in 2018 to 59 percent in 2019. The percentage of same-year 6th graders compared to same-year 5th graders decreased—again, for the first time in at least half a decade—from 80 percent last year to 76 percent this year, though in several respects 2018 was an anomalous spike year for enrollment.

You can analyze what numbers that are available any which way—in fact, please do!

But the bottom line is that nobody at the dozen or so related public school meetings I have attended predicted anything like such a dramatic drop-off. "All of the schools in District 15 are very, very full," New York Department of Education Director of Enrollment Research and Policy Andy McClintock said at a meeting I attended in May.

The 7 percent drop isn't the only year-over-year statistic that may worry bureaucrats tasked with educating all willing students. The number of families who appealed their school designation but were rejected rose from 290 in 2018 to 435 this year (or from 7.7 percent of applicants to 11.8 percent). That net addition of 145 disgruntled families is awfully close to the 168-student reduction in this year's 6th grade class. Meanwhile, local interest in at least one of the five charter schools operating within district boundaries has effectively doubled.

When equity-focused controlled-choice systems lead to declining enrollment, as has happened in San Francisco, Charlotte, and elsewhere, it can have adverse effects for the very integration at the heart of the exercise. As The New York Times concluded in an April article about San Francisco (where current NYC schools chief Richard Carranza once ran things), "About a quarter of the city's children are enrolled in private school, a higher percentage than in some other major cities, like New York, where it is around 20 percent. The lottery system is thought to be a major reason wealthy parents here opt out of public schools, further worsening segregation."

So you might think that proponents would have reacted to yesterday's numbers with a measure of cautious humility. Er, not quite.

In a remarkable Daily News op-ed that came out even before the news did (funny, that), two school-diversity activists and my city councilman, Brad Lander, not only declared victory but did so without even acknowledging the enrollment drop. Along the way, they managed to smear constituent parents for making unenlightened choices:

Many observers prophesied that this long-overdue correction would cause many white and affluent families, including those in neighborhoods like Park Slope, to exit the public school system altogether.

We have predicted otherwise—both because the new plan hardly lays such a burden on these families as to cause anything so drastic, and, more fundamentally, because we have more faith in our community….

While we may have lost a handful of families who were not interested in building diverse and supportive school communities, we may be gaining some who are.

There are many reasons families decline to accept their school designations. For instance, when you get assigned a school you didn't put on your list, as happened to a whopping 45 kids at the district's least desirable and typically lowest-performing school (which, shocker, saw its 6th grade enrollment drop from 176 to 147). Or, as in the case of a Diversity Plan supporter who helped design the middle school algorithm in the first place, when your daughter gets her 10th-ranked pick and the school is far away. Or when the algorithm spits out two different middle-school destinations, 40 minutes from one another, for your twins.

No matter: As a class, you will be treated by the people whose salaries you pay as the kind of monsters who are "not interested in building diverse and supportive school communities."

As I wrote in September, "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."

For now, the educational establishment is too busy high-fiving itself to spend too much time slamming the door behind noncompliant parents. Instead, in an odd but telling example of goalpost-shifting, the consensus brag is that the year-over-year percentage of Caucasian kids in the district remained the same: 31 percent. Lander titled his piece "The white flight that wasn't." The enrollment numbers, activist Miriam Nunberg told The Wall Street Journal, "tests the myth there will be white flight if you create heterogeneous groupings."

What makes the white flight formulation particularly interesting to me is that in all the local school meetings I slogged through, I have never heard the phrase used by anyone except advocates for the Diversity Plan, usually as a straw man for the perceived unsavoriness of any skeptics' motives.

When a parent at one gathering asked a Community Education Council member what was being done to retain families who were given designations they didn't like, he shot back, "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."

When I mentioned at one elementary school rezoning breakout session that forcing 5-year-olds to travel long distances would create "a lot of unhappy parents," one woman snapped back at me, "You mean a lot of unhappy white parents!" Which I in fact did not mean.

When Lander at the beginning of this school year again declared victory for the Diversity Plan, he started off his Buzzfeed piece with a meditation on how "Segregation is central to the ideology of white supremacy and the reproduction of America's racial caste system," then went on to lament that "Integration efforts are often met with backlash as white (and now sometimes Asian) parents feel something is being taken from them."

Such accusatory generalizations discourage public participation in policymaking. Whether they end up discouraging parents from enrolling their kids in local public schools, after years of steady increases, remains to be seen. Yesterday's partial numbers tell us about representation, but not the lived-in experience of education. On the core question of whether students and schools will improve, it is far too early to declare either victory or defeat.