Laura Meckler, Washington Post, November 17, 2022
When David C. Banks, future chancellor of the New York City school system, was growing up in a working-class Black family in southeast Queens, his father pulled strings to get him into a better junior high school across town. Banks and his brother left the house in darkness and took two buses to get to Flushing. In high school, his parents again believed the campus around the corner was unacceptable and sent the siblings out of the neighborhood.
The school they chose, Hillcrest High School in Jamaica, Queens, had been the site of integration protests from White parents when it opened in 1971, though when David arrived in 1977, he encountered little racial strife. He was elected vice president of his senior class, took advanced classes and ran track. “We got along,” he said. “We liked each other.”
It was the sort of positive multiracial experience that civil rights leaders had spent decades fighting for.
Now Banks, a politically well-connected educator who admires both Malcolm X and Mike Bloomberg, is in charge of the entire New York City school system, the nation’s largest. But he is not campaigning for integrated schools. And he does not think the sort of hunt his parents undertook is the best answer for today’s families.
“Sometimes our integration efforts can render really good fruit. But a lot of times we’re playing around on the margins,” he said in an expansive interview. “Historically, it’s been about how do we get a handful of Black students to be in schools with White kids who are better off. But what I always keep my mind on, and my focus on, is what about those other kids who didn’t get that opportunity? What are we doing about them?”
For years, advocates have decried racial and economic segregation in New York City schools, partly because it has been so rare for students in high-poverty schools to succeed. And New York City schools were among the most segregated, with about seven in 10 having racial demographics out of balance with their surrounding areas. Advocates prodded Mayor Bill de Blasio to take on the issue, and near the end of his tenure, pushed by the pandemic, he adopted changes.
Those changes reduced the role of merit in admissions and made some of the most sought-after schools modestly more diverse.
Now de Blasio is out, and Mayor Eric Adams is in, with his friend and adviser David Banks at his side as schools chancellor. For the first time ever, New York has a Black mayor and a Black schools chief.
But racial integration is not on their to-do list, and they have rolled back many of de Blasio’s policies. In every case, the question is whether to allow top-performing students to have their own classes and their own schools. Doing so keeps many of their parents happy, but those classes and schools tend to be disproportionately White and Asian, so they also drive racial segregation.
Banks replies that Black and Hispanic kids can successfully compete for these spots. And, despite his own experience, the chancellor does not think most Black families care all that much about integration or gaining access to schools viewed as elite, which may require traveling across town like he did. They simply want better schools in their own neighborhoods, he says, even if those schools remain segregated.
“When I talk to families across the city, Black families, nobody ever talks to me about integrated schools, not even once,” he said, his voice rising. “It’s not what they talk about.”
In the end, he believes his legacy will rest more on what happens in the segregated schools that serve hundreds of thousands of New York children and less on the drive, however nice in theory, for racially diverse classrooms.
For years, de Blasio faced pressure from integration advocates, including his own schools chancellor, to desegregate the city’s schools, where today students overall are 41 percent Hispanic, 24 percent Black, 17 percent Asian and 15 percent White. When the pandemic made it impossible to administer tests that had been used for admissions, de Blasio finally went along, and he said he hoped the changes would be permanent.
For elementary school, de Blasio directed that gifted and talented programs be phased out.
In middle school, where students apply for admission, de Blasio disallowed the use of academic “screens,” such as tests or grades, used at the time by 41 percent of campuses to decide which students were offered spots.
And for high school, de Blasio ended the practice in which sought-after schools each set their own admissions criteria. Instead, everyone who met a certain threshold was put into the top priority group and a lottery chose among those students.
Banks rolled back each of those policies.
For elementary school, he didn’t just keep gifted and talented programs. He added 1,100 seats to them, bringing the total to 3,500.
For middle school, Banks said the city’s 32 districts could each decide whether to use screens; for the coming admissions cycle, 59 out of 478 schools will reinstate them. (Students who don’t win admission to their top choices are placed at a school lower on their list.) Additionally, some schools are adding honors math and science classes for students with top grades, an alternate system to accommodate merit but one in which Black and Hispanic students are usually underrepresented.
And for high school, Banks raised the bar for grades needed to get top priority at the city’s most selective schools. He also left dormant a program that encouraged local districts to create their own diversity plans.
Together, these changes make Banks something of a centrist in this debate. He has kept certain reforms to admissions process but dialed back the most ambitious policies.
“What I’m trying to do is to be responsive to what the community is saying that they want,” the chancellor said. He lamented what he called a tide of families leaving the public schools. “So if there are families who are saying we want accelerated learning programs for our kids, I’m going to make sure that we can put that in place.” The views of the most privileged parents, he said, are “a very significant part of this equation.”
About 120,000 students have left in the past five years, with particularly significant drops among Black students and those from poor families, an advocacy group reported.
Banks also speaks bluntly about the value of merit.
“If you’ve got a child who works really hard on weekends, and putting in their time and energy, and they get a 98 average, they should have a better opportunity to get into a high-choice school than, you know, the child you have to throw water on their face to get them to go to school every day,” Banks said at a forum hosted by the Association for a Better New York in October.
Are these views in line with the desires of African American New Yorkers? Polling casts some doubt. In a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 68 percent of Black respondents nationwide said they favor racially and ethnically diverse schools, even if it means some students don’t enroll in their local communities. (Only 35 percent of White respondents felt the same way.)
Integrated schools have more resources, more programs and more experienced teachers, said Ivory Toldson, national director of education innovation and research at the NAACP. “Black parents want a quality education for their children and insofar as we want integration, it has been to achieve that end,” he said.
School segregation is driven by long-standing housing segregation (which itself stemmed from racist government and lending policies), and for years, New York schools exacerbated those divides by drawing school zones to keep Black students out of predominantly White schools, even if they were nearby. Efforts to desegregate schools in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education were met with resistance and White flight.
More recently, the Bloomberg administration sought to retain more White and more affluent students in the public schools by creating more seats for gifted and talented students and allowing parents more choice in where their children attend school. Critics note that it was easier for the most privileged families to navigate this complex system and prepare their children for admission to what became in-demand programs. One result: Certain schools had an abundance of parents to volunteer time and money, and fewer students with concentrated academic and other needs.
Integration advocates hoped the de Blasio changes would even things out, and they reacted sharply to the new attitude on display by Banks. Matt Gonzales, who directs an education justice center at NYU Metro Center, said he finds the chancellor to be “full of platitudes” and unwilling to consider the implications of a segregated school system. He is also put off by Banks’s focus on keeping affluent families happy.
Meanwhile, parents supporting a merit-based system were thrilled with Banks, at least initially. Kaushik Das, an Indian American father in Manhattan who serves as vice president of the local school council, met with Banks several times, including one-on-one at Banks’s invitation, and he came away impressed. “I like everything he had to say,” he said.
But he was furious after learning that none of the middle schools in his Manhattan district would resume filtering applicants by merit, a decision made by the local superintendent. “This is so disappointing on so many levels,” he wrote in an open letter.