URBAN AGENDA: Suit Seeks to Dismantle “Caste System” in City’s Education System

David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York | 3/18/2021, midnight
Last week, a group representing public school students joined with civil rights attorneys to file a sweeping lawsuit charging New ...
David R. Jones Contributed

Last week, a group representing public school students joined with civil rights attorneys to file a sweeping lawsuit charging New York State and City with maintaining and perpetuating a segregated public school system that denies many Black and brown students their constitutional right to a “sound, basic education” while condemning large numbers of them to “neglected schools that deliver inferior and unacceptable outcomes.”

Of course, we did not need a lawsuit to tell us that the city’s public school system is rife with racial inequities. Or for that matter to remind us that vast numbers of Black and brown students – who represent 70 percent of the approximate 1.1 million student population -- are languishing in segregated, under-resourced schools, by design.

But the lawsuit does deserve credit for compellingly laying out in detail how the public education system, starting at Pre-K, sorts and channels students into different academic tracks based on affluence, access to test preparation and other resources. And how this pipeline to the city’s screened schools and elite educational programs is inaccessible to the majority of Black and Latinx students.

On the other hand, White and Asian students are overrepresented in the city’s top middle and high schools comparable to their overall numbers. Why? Because as the lawsuit argues, they have benefitted from a system that gives unfair advantage to students and families with resources to pour into test prep, and who have acquired the “soft skills and insider knowledge” to successfully navigate the city’s highly competitive admissions process.

“There is not another K-12 system in the U.S. like New York’s where standardized tests, navigational capital and the wealth of the privileged class determines what school students end up in, and where Black and brown students attend substandard schools,” said Mark Rosenbaum, lead counsel in the lawsuit and a long-time civil rights attorney. “And the only conclusion you can come to is that it is intentional and designed to perpetuate that these students are inferior to others. It says that these kids are disposable. In fact, if you had to come up with a caste system you would be hard pressed to find one more rigid than NYC.”

Named in the lawsuit are Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, the Board of Regents, and the NYC Department of Education. It is premised on a clause in the New York State Constitution that establishes that all schoolchildren are entitled by law to a sound, basic education. Plaintiffs argue that the defendants are violating students’ constitutional rights by permitting and reinforcing an educational environment that “creates, validates and perpetuates a racialized hierarchy.”

By continuing to rely on a single test that has never been validated and never been shown to be unbiased as the principle means of determining who gains entry to the city’s higher status schools, the lawsuit charges New York City and State with being complicit in preserving and strengthening the racial inequities of the system.

“We don’t have to prove intent (to discriminate), only that a sound basic education is anti-racist,” said Rosenbaum of the lawsuit, which seeks the elimination of selective admissions policies at all grade levels as well as remedying other conditions of the system that deny students a sound basic education. Indeed, the lawsuit lays out a litany of examples of what it calls the system’s tolerance of various forms of racial animosity and racial insensitivity, from vermin-infested schools, overcrowded classrooms, dilapidated books and culturally insensitive curriculum to a lack of teachers of color, mental health professionals and enrichment programs.

Next month, the city’s education department is expected to release the latest student demographics for those accepted to the city’s Specialized High Schools (SHS), where admission is based on a score on a single standardized test, the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). The crown jewel of the city’s elite high schools, Stuyvesant High School, admitted only ten Black students in 2020 out of a class of roughly 760 freshman.

As this lawsuit reminds us, the city’s test-based specialized high schools are the starkest example of the segregation which permeates the city’s school system. And the only way we are going to change the abysmal representation of Black and brown students in these schools is by abolishing the single test.

While the de Blasio administration has put forth a plan for improving diversity at the eight SHS, based in part on a Community Service Society report, the mayor has not pressed Albany on this issue, or even exercised his authority to change admissions policy at the five specialized high schools that come under mayoral control.

When asked how history will judge the mayor’s stewardship of the system, Rosenbaum was blunt: “He let hundreds of thousands of kids of color to go to schools that would not pass Plessy vs. Ferguson.”

Let us hope our next mayor has the political courage to stand strong against policies that deny too many Black and brown students a first-rate education.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.