News broke last Tuesday, March 12th, that some rich parents, including actors Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives) and Lori Loughlin (Full House), paid from $15,000 to $500,000 to fraudulently arrange their children’s acceptances into colleges ranging from Yale to University of Southern California.
The usual suspects made the appropriate shocked noises. Like when Major Strasser learned there was gambling in Casablanca.
The only thing that shocked me was that Huffman, Laughlin, et. al. went with bribery and altered SAT scores/faked achievements instead of simply making a perfectly legal donation to their respective schools, or hiring an army of tutors to hold their children’s hands through every step of the process.
Money has always played a huge role in gaining admittance to whatever your definition of a “good” school is. It’s not limited to college, and it’s not limited to Hollywood. In New York City, money is a key factor in admissions starting with elementary school.
I’m not talking about private school tuition, which averages about $50,000 a year, plus fundraisers and donations on top of that. I’m talking about the cost of public school admission (and that’s without factoring in those with superstar fundraising PTAs).
The simplest thing to do to get into a top ranked public school is to simply move into the zone of your choice (and hope there’s no waitlist). But $500K may not be enough for a family-sized home in an Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Tribeca, Chelsea, Brownstone Brooklyn or Belle Harbor, Queens neighborhood zoned for a high-achieving public Kindergarten through 5th grade. It sure can purchase you a studio you can then claim is your home address, though. (Some families do move in for the duration of the admissions season, then move right back out, often using the time to remodel their original residence. It’s a win-win!)
Don’t have an extra $500K lying around? You might be able to rent something for $15K. After all, you only need it for a year or so. Following that, your child is grandfathered in (plus all subsequent siblings have admission priority.) If even that’s outside your budget, there’s the always popular option to pay a better situated friend’s utility bill and use it as proof of residence.
But, wait, there’s more! $15K can get your child prepped for the tests used to assess who is gifted and who is talented. In that case, without changing your address, you have a shot at one of the highest-scoring citywide schools, or that publicly funded school with the magical ability to make even the most vehement pro-public school parents swallow their principles.
Think prepping children is unnecessary since G&T is an even playing field, as this mother wrote me? Then go ahead and use the money for enrichment like music, acting, and dance lessons. If it helps your child get into a performing arts high Sschool like LaGuardia or Frank Sinatra, it’s perfectly fair. They earned it. (I’m not disparaging parents who support their child’s passion for the arts; my son has been dancing since he was 8, I’m merely pointing out that, like Debbie Allen taught us in the opening to her TV series, Fame, “(It) costs.”)
But sometimes, alas, money isn’t enough. In some cases, it does help to be a celebrity, too. Like Cynthia Nixon or Louis C.K. or Samantha Bee. Their children attended The Center School. This citywide middle school accepts children holistically. Like the private colleges indicted in the pay-to- play scandal, and many of NYC’s almost 200 screened middle and high schools, Center uses self-selected intangibles like extracurricular activities or community service in determining admissions. They insist mere grades and test scores don’t tell the whole story. They want their students to be well -rounded. Surely everyone can afford (or know enough) to be on a travelling lacrosse team, in a competitive children’s choir, or take that service trip to build houses in Haiti for the less fortunate.
Being well-rounded costs, too.
Plus, there’s the interview portion. Center School candidates meet with faculty and current students, who then weigh in on whether the child would be a good fit. Not unlike Harvard’s “positive personality” traits.
In the end, Center School, like Hunter College Campus Schools, the publicly funded school mentioned above which refuses to disclose their rubric for how they select students during their Second Round of Kindergarten admissions or what they look for in the essay portion of their high-school exam, can do whatever they want. They don’t need to defend their admissions process to anyone. (Spoiler: Being the child of a celebrity who can host fundraisers for the school doesn’t hurt. Or only apply to Hunter. Highly contested unzoned schools and dual language programs also get into the act. Check out these celebrity parents stumping for their child’s school and getting famous friends – and famous mothers – to join in.)
That’s a system ripe for exploitation by the wealthy and the connected.
In 2017, I wrote about then-School Chancellor Carmen Farina pulling strings to help then-Deputy Mayor Richard Buery get his son into Park Slope’s top middle school. The same school that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Councilman Brad Lander’s children also randomly got into, although we hear they both wished their children had gone to a school with more diversity, except neither could figure out how to make that happen. Don’t worry, they’ve fixed it so your children need not suffer in such a manner. (The same goes for the high schools their children attended.)
Money and power doesn’t merely help with getting into private colleges. In NYC, it’s just as important for getting into every level of public school.
It will also continue happening as long as education remains a zero sum game – something it absolutely does not need to be. It will keep happening until all public schools truly are equally good, not just repeatedly declared so by current Chancellor Richard Carranza.
Oh, and there’s gambling in Casablanca.