De Blasio takes heat from Torres, opponents, on school integration policies

One of the city’s most vocal proponents of school desegregation criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio Thursday for his approach to the problem.

The criticism came after an interview on WNYC’s “Brian Lehrer Show,” where de Blasio presented aspects of his affordable housing plan and the city’s expanded pre-K program as part of the answer to school segregation.

The affordable housing program, de Blasio said, “creates more diversity in neighborhoods, and that’s really, obviously, the root of the situation. If we can create more diversity through housing and development, that is another way to get at the schools issue.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat, City Councilman Ritchie Torres disputed that claim, arguing that there are separate and more effective policy mechanisms the city can deploy to address school segregation.

“I suspect most of the affordable housing we’re creating is being created in lower-income neighborhoods,” Torres said. “So, affordable housing is hardly a guarantee of more diverse neighborhoods. City government has far greater control of school diversity than neighborhood diversity.”

Torres is a big supporter of a policy called controlled choice, which combines parent preferences and family demographics to ensure that students from similar backgrounds don’t cluster at the same schools. Several districts across the city have discussed that system, but there is no proposed citywide legislation or policy requiring it.

The de Blasio administration has said that desegregation proposals should come from local communities, not City Hall. But Torres argues that is a politically expedient approach that won’t address systemic disparities in the largest school system in the country.

“[School segregation] is the most important progressive issue of our time and it deserves more attention from the administration,” he said.

You can find a full transcript of the de Blasio interview here, but we’ve copied relevant excerpts below:

Lehrer: So, [controlled] choice, for people who don’t know, would allow parents to have school choice mostly like they do now in the current system, but with limits to avoid some of the worst kinds of segregation that we have now. Would you sign a controlled choice bill?

Mayor: Well, I have not seen the specific proposal, Brian. It is something that we certainly would look at. We believe there is a lot more to be done in terms of fully integrating our schools, but I do want to say, right now we are seeing some real success with models that are being used right now in our school system that are starting to be very, very effective in terms of bringing in a better mix of kids into some of our schools. I think the pre-K program has also been an example of an initiative that has had a really good impact in terms of diversity. So, we’re looking at a lot of options. I’m committed to it. I was working on this when I was a PTA member back at my son and daughter’s school. But it has to be done very carefully and the laws create a number of challenges that we have to navigate properly, but we’ll certainly look at the Councilman’s proposal.

Lehrer: What would be – I know you can’t do things explicitly based on race under the interpretations of the Constitution. So, there’d have to be other kinds of measures like income, and things like that, that tend to stand in for race. So, the Constitutional concerns, potential court challenges aside – is there anything that you think would limit parents’ choices too much that would make you veto such a bill?

Mayor: Again, I haven’t seen the bill and I haven’t seen the specifics. I would say to your broader point – yes, there are some real legal limitations. We do have some areas that we could work with more flexibly around income, as you said, around geography. There’s different models that we some real hope in. But let’s be clear – we talked about this in our previous show – this is also the result of decades, in fact hundreds of years, of segregation in our nation. And a lot of that goes back to economics and housing. Our affordable housing plan, also, we believe, creates more diversity in neighborhoods, and that’s really, obviously, the root of the situation. If we can create more diversity through housing and development, that is another way to get at the schools issue. But we’re certainly going to look at the Councilman’s proposal but we have not assessed it yet.

This article was first published on Chalkbeat New York on June 16.