Lack of School Choice Isn’t the Problem In NYC: It’s The Lack of Good Choices

Elizabeth A. Harris and Ford Fessenden’s May 5th New York Times piece, “The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools,”  comes to the conclusion that the inequities in the City’s admissions system can be attributed to choice itself. In reality, however, it’s not having multiple high school choices that leads to over half of NYC students graduating non-college/career ready. Instead, it’s the lack of quality kindergarten-eighth grade choices.

The authors write,

{E)ighth graders can apply anywhere in the city, in theory unshackling themselves from failing, segregated, neighborhood schools. Students select up to 12 schools and get matched to one by a special algorithm.

This description of the process is only partially true. It leaves out both the public specialized high schools, which students apply to via a separate ranking process, and charter schools, which may be applied to directly. In addition, there are religious and independent schools, offering generous financial aid for qualified students.

But that’s hardly good news for the New York Times. The implication in the article is that this variety of choices needlessly complicates the high school application process, and actually hurts those least prepared to take advantage of it. If all students would just go to their local school, this magical thinking goes, they would all improve, and choice would be unnecessary. Choice, this narrative goes, allows the strongest students to abandon low-performing schools which, in turn, makes them even weaker. Making a choice for the benefit of your own child hurts all those left behind, suggests a NYT complementary piece on kindergarten admissions.

But that’s not how it works.

Families don’t have nearly the same choice for K-8 as they do for high school. As covered here, there are only five citywide Gifted & Talented schools, three in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn and one in Queens: Bronx and Staten Island don’t rate, apparently, and can’t accommodate over two-thirds of the students who qualify for these programs!

District G&T programs are contingent on a student’s address — something high schools, by and large, avoid, although some do offer district and borough preference — and they too don’t have room for everyone who makes the cut-off.

There are unzoned schools at the district level. Middle-class families tend to cluster there. Unzoned schools share multiple similarities with charter schools, but it is somehow not considered equally treasonous to opt your offspring out of your local school in favor of the unzoned option by those who swear they believe in traditional public education, A typical unzoned school might get close to 1,000 applications for sixty available seats. Siblings of students already in the school get priority, and if you know someone on the inside who can vouch for you, you are much more likely to get off the waitlist. If you don’t live in that district, your chances of getting in are almost non-existent. Is this, along with the G&T schools, a choice that should be eliminated as well?

Finally, the top-rated zoned general education schools often have to wait-list neighborhood children; they certainly don’t have room for outside students, even if parents are willing to make the commute.

The real problem is that by the time students have the option of making choices for high school, many of those choices have already been taken away from them as a result of their no-choice elementary education. Many schools they’d like to attend are out of their reach, due to test scores and other factors like the ability to interview well, also cited in the NYT piece.

When I give talks about the high school application process, I meet great, motivated, polite kids — and their concerned parents — who tell me that they want to be doctors, lawyers, scientists. But when we start discussing schools they can reasonably apply to, I learn their English Language Arts and Mathematics tests scores are in the 1’s or 2’s. (3 means at grade level, 4 means above; some top schools will only consider students with 4’s in both).

The NYT article gets one thing right: Choice is not going to help these kids as much as you would hope. They needed that choice nine years earlier. (Although I would argue that, even at this level, the opportunity to apply to the best possible school they can get into, rather than just be slotted into any one by the Department of Education, is still an improvement.)

The obvious solution is to make all schools in all boroughs of equal high quality via accountability and other measures. But, short of that, isn’t the next best thing offering more choice at the elementary school level, rather than blaming the concept of choice for the failure at the secondary level  and suggesting that, as a result, it does nobody any good?

What do you think?

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