Diversity shouldn’t be just for the privileged. 

While we focus on diversifying America’s colleges, a New York high school student may never encounter a classmate of another race. 

Today in America, two-fifths of whites but only one-fifth of blacks and about one-tenth of Hispanics hold a college degree. Eight percent of blacks and 15 percent of Hispanics don’t even graduate from high school, compared with 5 percent of whites. Three-quarters of those students admitted to America’s most selective colleges come from the richest quarter of the population; only 3 percent come from the bottom quarter. Meanwhile, Americans with a college degree earn 1.5 times the median income, more than those with just a high school diploma, and more than twice as much as those who dropped out of high school altogether.

Even more startling: These disparities are getting worse. After all the progress made toward racial equality since the time of slavery, through the civil rights era and Brown v. the Board of Education, through today, is America resigning itself to let its poorest, who are disproportionally black and Hispanic, live an existence that is no longer separate, but still unequal?

The oft-cited notion of America being an educational meritocracy, in which any student, rich or poor, black or white, has an equal opportunity to advance herself, is of course a myth. But now, the tools that have been created over the past half-century to slowly create a more egalitarian reality are failing.

Childhood inequality: A New York case study

A look at New York City schools shows how drastically the educational experiences, and futures, of two different sets of students growing up in the same city and in same public education system can differ.

A recent study of racial disparities in New York Public schools found that only 18 percent of minority students are proficient in reading. Eleven percent of Asian students and 10 percent of white students perform in the ‘highest achievement’ category in English Language Arts, compared with 2 percent of black and Hispanic students.

But even beyond racial disparities, the quality of New York City education and opportunities varies extraordinarily by the neighborhood in which one lives and therefore the school they are likely to attend. These disparities are most visible in high school: nearly half of Asian and white students in New York City attend high-performing high schools, but only 18 percent of black and 16 percent of Hispanic students do.

Sometimes, though, disparities exist even in the same neighborhood. Within a ten-minute walk from my Washington Heights apartment are two public high schools that offer starkly different realities for the students enrolled there. The High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College (CCNY) was the number one rated public high school in New York in 2011, according to test scores compiled by SchoolDigger.com. Just five blocks south — on 135th street, across Saint Nicholas Park to the East — Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School was ranked almost last, placing within the bottom 4th percentile of public schools. The CCNY high school has a dropout rate of 1 percent. Bread and Roses has a dropout rate of 31 percent. Bread and Roses students also tend to come from lower-income families, with 72 percent eligible for free or reduced lunch (which means their family incomes place them at 185 percent of the federal poverty line or below), compared with only 18 percent of the CCNY high school students.

What the severe dropout rate means is that 31 percent of students enrolled at Bread & Roses will end up in the lowest category of wage-earners in America, earning half what those with college degrees earn. And three-fourths of these students come from low-income families in the first place, perpetuating America’s economic inequalities for another generation.

Often when we talk about disparities we do so in terms of the effects they have on the learning environment for the privileged who go on to attend college, something reflected in the current debate over affirmative action in higher education. But what’s even more alarming is what educational segregation by race means for the lower-performing schools: At Bread & Roses, 53 percent of the students are black, 45 percent are Hispanic, leaving exactly three white students and two Asian students in a student body of 524. While the media and the courts focus on affirmative action policies of colleges, we’re ignoring a much more startling fact: Millions of children are growing up in a bubble in which their peers and friends look exactly like one another and come from the same end of America’s income divide –– the bottom.

In contrast, the CCNY high school offers substantial racial diversity: 36 percent of the students are Asian, 15 percent are black, 21 Hispanic and 26 white. If we are to believe the argument that racial diversity is crucial to a rich education environment at America’s colleges, then we must also believe that we are simultaneously depriving our neediest youth of a diverse, rich education themselves. The CCNY high school is perhaps atypical because it is hosted by a local college and was founded, in 2002, specifically as a college-prep high school. Its budget is approximately $3 million. Meanwhile, Bread & Roses receives 8 percent less funding, but serves 23 percent more students.

For more on segregation in New York City schools, visit this 2012 info graphic by the New York Times.

Looking ahead, and beyond charter schools

Diversity in education matters not merely for diversity’s sake. Researchers from the American Psychological Association found that “Higher levels of racial integration are associated with elevated achievement scores, particularly for reading and during the elementary grades, but also in reduced dropout rates for African Americans and higher rates of enrollment in higher education. Psychological research supports the connection between inter-racial friendships, school climate and academic achievement.”

Racial diversity, then, is a key factor in a stimulating educational environment for all children. Although the general American public may not be privy to the reality of disparities in American education, policy makers certainly are. They have tried a number of solutions, most recently a push toward charter schools––public entities established by communities as an alternative to existing public schools.

Conservatives and liberals alike have advocated for school choice through charter schools, which are becoming increasingly popular with parents around the country. While charter schools offer an attractive alternative to the traditional, struggling public education system, researchers like Erika Frankenburg at Penn State University believe they may actually be worsening the achievement gap. That’s because they allow more privileged parents, who tend to have better access to information about education opportunities, a choice for better schooling that lower income families may not be aware of.

“Charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation,” wrote Erika Frankenburg and her colleagues in a 2010 study. “In some regions, white students are over-represented in charter schools, while in other charter schools, minority students have little exposure to white students. As charters represent an increasing share of our public schools, they influence the level of segregation experienced by all of our nation’s school children. After two decades, the promise of charter schools to use ‘choice’ to foster integration and equality in American education has not yet been realized.”

Policymakers must look beyond charter schools if they are to diversify America’s education system. That process must be holistic, involving measures designed to fund schools more equitably by decreasing the percentage of a school’s budget that depends upon property taxes within their districts. And above all, they must invest in universal preschool. (Story coming next week).