In an effort to illuminate root causes of segregation in New York City public schools, a City Council bill seeks to create an office within the New York City Commission on Human Rights tasked specifically with studying the issue.
As Councilman Ritchie Torres, the primary sponsor of the bill, envisions it, an Office of School Diversity would report annually on the prevalence and causes of racial segregation in the schools. The office would also make recommendations for addressing underlying causes.
"The conventional wisdom, and the misconception of segregation, is that it’s purely a product of housing patterns," said Torres, adding that, of course, segregated neighborhoods are a contributing factor in school segregation.
"But segregated schools within integrated neighborhoods are hardly explained by housing patterns," he said, "and so what are the policy choices that are contributing to phenomenon of segregated schools within otherwise integrated neighborhoods?"
A 2014 study from the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that New York City has some of the most segregated schools in the country. A WNYC analysis of student enrollment for the 2015-2016 school year showed that half of the city's schools had student bodies that were more than 90 percent black and Latino.
Torres said that he placed the proposed Office of School Diversity within the Commission on Human Rights to preserve its independence from the Department of Education. Besides, he argued, approaching school segregation as a human rights issue would force the city to consider how its expansive human rights law applied to school enrollment.
"Human rights law protects against discrimination not only in terms of intent but also in terms of impact," he said. "So the New York City public school system has a disparate impact on, and therefore discriminates against, African-Americans and Latinos."
The bill is co-sponsored by Councilman Brad Lander. It is being introduced during Tuesday's City Council stated meeting. Education officials said they will review the proposed legislation.
Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration has called diversifying schools a priority, though the mayor and education officials have balked at implementing district-wide or city-wide reforms. The city initiated a "diversity in admissions" pilot program last school year with seven schools. It expanded the program this year to another 12 schools.
Also this year, during a school rezoning on the Upper West Side, the city for the first time stated that "promoting diversity" was a goal when redrawing zone lines. And education officials said they would share a broader plan for addressing school integration by June.
Critics — including researchers, historians, community groups, parents and educators — have taken issue with the city's baby-steps approach. The public advocate, Letitia James, earlier this month called for the Department of Education to create a chief diversity officer to help address systemic issues of segregation.
WNYC has reported extensively on historic and present-day segregation in New York City schools. WNYC and BRIC are hosting a town hall on Thursday, Dec. 1 called Class Divide: Breaking the Pattern of School Segregation.