School Choice

Why Everyone  In NYC Has School Choice…And Why Everyone Doesn’t.

It’s National School Choice Week, which makes it the perfect time to discuss why everyone in New York City has School Choice. And why everyone doesn’t.

In theory, NYC students have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to educational options. There is Universal Pre K in public schools, charter schools, community centers, and private and religious schools.

Elementary schools can be zoned, unzoned, citywide, Gifted & Talented, dual language, charter, independent and religious.

Middle-schoolers have district and citywide schools, many with Honors programs within them, and high schools can be Specialized, Screened, Arts, Ed-Opt, P-tech and zoned, also with individual Honors programs, in addition to charter and private.

On paper, NYC families are living the School Choice dream.

In reality, the families I work with have described it as a nightmare.

The quality of schools in New York City is catastrophically uneven, ranging from ones where over 95 percent of the students are performing at or above grade level, to ones where less than 5 percent are.

Naturally, the majority of parents prefer the former, be it public, charter, or private. But there are not nearly enough seats to go around. Citywide, over 40,000 students are on charter school wait-lists. Two-thirds of children who qualify for a Citywide Gifted & Talented spot are shut out. Unzoned progressive schools (the kind Matt Damon claims don’t exist in NYC, hence him being forced to regretfully not practice what he preaches and send his own kids to private school) can receive up to 1,000 applications for 50 places. And even a local, zoned school can reject a child by claiming overcrowding, and send them elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Anderson Middle School in Manhattan tests 800 children. For around 10 open spots. At the high school level, over 30,000 students take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). For only 4,000 seats spread over eight schools in five boroughs.

Families are absolutely free to make their choices. The application forms for public schools alone allow you to rank up to 12 options. The problem is, the odds are against you getting your top choice.

As one mother wrote to NY School Talk:

(W)hy give the illusion of choices? Last year, my zoned school is PS 105 in the Bronx, and I listed it LAST because I didn’t want to send my child there. So, the other schools around my neighborhood, X357, PS 83, PS 108…those gave me a waiting list (that amounted to nothing, none of those seats ever opened I guess)…. We signed up for two charters schools in our area, and were placed in a lottery list but did not make it. So that was also a disappointment…it’s a shame that the process is not that easy or welcoming.

And it is an even bigger shame that the aforementioned illusion of choice at the lower levels causes further choices to diminish as children move up in grades.

Except for Pre-K, all other school levels often require some sort of testing to get into the more academically rigorous, traditional public and private schools. (The majority of charter schools continue to accept students via lottery at the Kindergarten, Middle School and High School levels.)

There is a test for Elementary School Gifted & Talented programs. Middle School Honors programs look at some combination of grades, portfolios, state test scores, and sometimes require their own exam. The same goes for Screened public and most private and religious High Schools.

So the twelve public school spots remain on the application form, open to anyone from anywhere in NYC. But, by High School, so many teens have fallen so far behind that they have no chance of scoring highly enough on the SHSAT or earning a seat at one of the other competitive schools or programs.

So, yes, there is School Choice in NYC. But it is not the student’s choice. It is not their parents’ choice. It is the lottery’s choice.

NYC school placement, more often than not, comes down to a lottery. Families can express their preferences, but that’s about it. (Yes, there are wait-lists, and yes, they sometimes do move; but this requires a skill set – and knowledge – that the majority of parents who need it the most, lack.) The Department of Education would prefer you just trust them;  they know what’s best for your child better than you do.

Instead of looking at demand – more requests for progressive schools than there are spots? So open more progressive schools! More applications to G&T and Specialized Schools? Give the people what they want! And, oh, yeah, close the ones they don’t want, and maybe stop paying the teachers in the rubber room so you can afford the above – the DOE continues forcing square pegs into round holes, and pronouncing every initiative they roll out a triumph based on the number of children enrolled.

As if most families have any choice in the matter.

What do you think?

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