National School Choice Week

How Brooklyn's Much-Copied Diversity Plan Helped Throw its Best Middle School Into Chaos

After former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio changed the admissions rules at the school his kids graduated from, testing, safety, and excellence plummeted.


When then-Mayor Bill de Blasio and the entire New York City political and educational establishment unveiled in September 2018 a trailblazing new middle-school Diversity Plan that radically changed the admissions criteria for Brooklyn's District 15 in the name of racial "equity," they chose the most symbolic possible site for the announcement: M.S. 51, the William Alexander School, in progressive (and prosperous) Park Slope.

M.S. 51, which until that moment had screened prospective incoming students for their elementary-level grades, test scores, and attendance, was by far the most sought-after middle school in a district where enrollment was always increasing, and students were routinely moving on to the city's eight elite high schools. William Alexander, where both De Blasio and then-City Councilman (now Comptroller) Brad Lander had already graduated their kids, was NYC's fourth-largest feeder into the specialized high schools in 2018 with 122; a raw number it would match again in 2019, the last class before the new admissions rules went into effect.

"The current D15 admissions process presents itself as a system of choice and meritocracy, but it functions as a system for hoarding privilege," Lander said at M.S. 51 that day. "I genuinely believe that this plan will be better for all students, and that a less segregated, less divided city will be better for all of us."

The claim that all students would benefit from a "controlled choice" system in which families rank their preferred middle-school destinations but the education bureaucracy ultimately controls the outcome via algorithmic lottery weighted to smooth out socioeconomic imbalances across the district was not just presented as an aspirational prediction by advocates, but as scientific fact by politicians and allegedly impartial news organizations.

"The research is clear—integrated schools benefit all students," then-New York school Chancellor Richard Carranza said that day. Asserted the city's lengthy and triumphant press release: "The research is clear that all students benefit from diverse, inclusive schools….[T]here is widespread agreement that there are positive academic outcomes for all students attending racially diverse schools." Echoed New York Times national education correspondent Dana Goldstein: "There's a robust and growing body of research that pretty conclusively demonstrates the benefits of integration."

Suppose there is a gap between those confident, science-touting predictions and the real-world controlled-choice experiences of students, parents, and schools. In that case, the implications go far beyond the fate of a few thousand Brooklyn families. District 15's removal of selective admissions criteria (enacted at the same time as NYC's District 3) became the temporary citywide standard in the pandemic-marred admissions years of 2020 and 2021 and is now the policy in most of the city. An estimated 185 public K-12 districts around the country have adopted policies to combat "segregation" (using the 21st-century activist sense of that word, not the 1950s definition of government-enforced racial bans) as the tenets of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) spread like wildfire through public-education institutions, particularly in Democratic-controlled polities.

Thanks to parents badgering New York's Department of Education (DOE) with Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests, we know as of last week how the first post-Diversity Plan three-year class of District 15 middle schoolers fared when applying to elite high schools: Not so great.

The middle school class of 2019, the last to graduate under the old admissions policy, had 212 offers into the specialized high schools. The class of 2022 received just 168; this despite being only 22 students smaller than the class of 2019. Pre-Diversity Plan, around 45 percent of District 15 8th graders took the Specialized Highschool Aptitude Test (SHSAT), of which around 25 percent got in; post-changes, those ratios have been consistently down to 40 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

But the results were downright brutal in De Blasio's old M.S. 51. After sending 122 kids to the elite schools in both 2018 and 2019, William Alexander has nose-dived down to 52. Once among the top four feeder schools in the city, M.S. 51 is now tied for 16th. And it's not just the smart kids suffering.

Seventh-grade math proficiency scores at the school have collapsed from 81 percent in 2019 to 48 percent in 2022, with double-digit declines among each of the four racial groups that the DOE tracks. This cannot be explained away by pandemic learning loss; Manhattan's District 2, which is consistently the second-largest feeder into the specialized high school, saw very little decline over the same period.

It gets considerably worse. One of the main metrics New York City families look at when ranking their preferred middle and high schools is students' feeling of safety around school and in class. Gotham, after all, can be a bit rough around the edges, and a sense of dangerous chaos does not generally speak well of institutions harboring children. In just three short years, students' self-reported feeling of safety around M.S. 51 has plummeted 19 percentage points, from 91 percent to 72 percent. Even safety within the classroom has notched down from 95 percent to 90 percent.

This tracks with all the anecdotal chatter I've heard (I live a mile away) among friends whose kids have attended M.S. 51 during the Diversity Plan era: Bedlam in the hallways, serial transgressors going unpunished by the new "restorative justice" discipline policies, woeful integration of new incoming populations, a bewildering decline in academics.

A report Tuesday in Chalkbeat New York, which has published a lot of uncritical praise of the Diversity Plan until this week, paints a picture of profound dysfunction at William Alexander—two-thirds of faculty giving a no-confidence vote to new principal Neal Singh; their union filing a grievance, teachers quitting in droves, accusations (on all sides) of racism, anguished quotes from people whose whole identity was wrapped up in what had been until 2019 a beloved local institution.

"Teachers and parents reported that fights were erupting outside the building and in the hallways," Chalkbeat found. "Children were also cutting class, vaping and smoking pot in the bathrooms, pulling fire alarms, and bullying other students, the teachers and parents said. The school issued 33 suspensions last year, according to public data. That was up from 19 in 2018-2019."

New York City's government-run public schools have seen a staggering 10 percent enrollment decline since the pandemic, including another 1.8 percent drop this school year. Still, the exodus from District 15 middle schools began the year before COVID-19, coinciding precisely when the Diversity Plan went into effect and delivered a sharp increase in families unhappy with their controlled-choice school designation.

And now, despite much lip service from New York Mayor Eric Adams and his DOE chief David Banks about luring families back into the public system by restoring merit-based policies, the removal of admissions criteria is spreading across the city under their watch. Including in the once-impervious District 2.

Despite the local Community Education Council (CEC) voting to restore admissions screens and parents at public meetings overwhelmingly lending their support, District 2 Superintendent Kelly McGuire moved unilaterally in October to subject all 17 middle schools to a weighted lottery system similar to District 15's. "I am now looking for private schools for my son," District 2 CEC member Danyela Souza Egorov told McGuire at a November meeting. "But so many families in our district have reached out to me that they cannot afford it. It's deeply unfair that your plan does not meet the needs of these families."

Back when District 15 was holding a series of public meetings that would eventually lead to its admissions overhaul, I heard concerned parents—including many who supported the plan—ask reform advocates on several occasions versions of two questions: 1) How will you ensure that the re-mixed schools will be able to integrate new populations that have more varied education backgrounds/needs, and 2) What will you try to do to retain families that are unhappy with their school designations? The answer to both, over and over again, was: Stop being racist.

Now that those parental worries about degraded quality and familial flight have indeed come to pass, as had been predicted by many academics who study controlled choice, it remains to be seen whether the local and national momentum toward K-12 educational "equity" policies will be slowed. The funding for most public schooling is tied to enrollment, and enrollment is falling fastest in places that locked down, imposed controlled choice, or both. There is not an unlimited amount of public support available for the expensive provision of a free product that consumers find repellant.