Persistent segregation in Nassau schools, report says

Amy Stuart Wells, lead author of "The Perfect Amy Stuart Wells, lead author of "The Perfect Storm of Property Tax Caps, Hyper Accountability, and Anti-Public Education Politics" of Nassau County, speaks during the Suburban Promise of Brown symposium at Teachers College at Columbia University, Friday, May 2, 2014. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

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A new report out Friday, exploring what it terms a persistent pattern of racial and ethnic segregation in Nassau County's public schools, finds that pressures of accountability reforms, an "unsustainable" system of property tax financing, and homeowners' perceptions about racial breakdowns of students have combined to reinforce segregation.

The report's authors call for new policies "to support diverse communities."

"How do we support diverse communities so we don't have a downward spiral? So we don't have white flight," Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, the report's lead author, said in an interview. "So we keep them diverse, in terms of income and race, as we support their schools. The history of this country is we haven't done that. The history of this country is when blacks and Latinos move in, whites move out."

The 50-page report was released during a daylong symposium at Teachers College, part of Columbia University in Manhattan, exploring the "victories and setbacks" in sustaining racially diverse suburban public schools and communities 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down legally segregated schools.

In welcoming the conferees at Teachers College, Nancy Rauch Douzinas, president of the Rauch Foundation, which sponsored the conference and publishes the Long Island Index, said there were many challenges facing suburbs like Long Island.

"The stark reality on Long Island . . . is that blacks and Hispanics are concentrated in high poverty schools, perpetuating the economic disparities among racial and ethnic groups. That's the crux of the problem we now face, in terms of segregation in suburban schools."

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The report said, because of demographic shifts in Nassau, there are fewer predominantly white school districts in the county (18 out of 56 districts) than a decade ago. Nevertheless, it said the vast majority of the segregation (95 percent) lies between school districts, rather than within districts.

"These rather dramatic racial and ethnic distinctions across school district boundaries have implications for who moves where in Nassau County and how much they pay for their home," the report said.

The five-year study of Nassau's public school districts, covering 2008 to 2013, examined how residents "value" public education, as well as which public schools they valued most and why. It involved surveying home buyers, resulting in 500 respondents, and conducting a statistical analysis of property values and school district boundaries -- which Wells called unique research -- and 300 in-depth interviews.

"What we learned is that the 'value' Nassau County residents place on their public schools -- both in terms of the 'material value' of the price of housing and the 'emotional value' of reputation, identity and appreciation of place -- is tightly tied to who lives in a given community and who attends the public schools," the report said. "Such evaluations, we argue, are forces of segregation and inequality."

The report also said policy reforms requiring more standardized testing and teacher evaluations, coupled with the 2 percent tax cap and tight budgets -- known as the "perfect storm" among school officials -- and growing anti-public-school politics perpetuate a "vicious cycle" that reinforces segregation.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't measure math ability," Wells said. "But what I am saying is we're putting way too much emphasis on these narrow measures, and then it has huge consequences for schools and students."

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