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Unraveling the “Paradox” of School Choice: A New Report from the New School Gets More Wrong Than Right

The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs issued a report today called “The Paradox of Choice: How School Choice Divides New York City Elementary Schools” and I find it underwhelming. Lead authors Nicole Mader, Clara Hemphill and Qasim Abbas draw broad conclusions from limited data sets, leave important questions unacknowledged (let alone unanswered), and privilege the Shangri-La of “diversity” over NYC parents’ thirst for high-quality schools.

But maybe they’re just being honest. Sometimes projects yield limited results. Sometimes complex topics like school choice undermine simplistic conclusions. Sometimes authors are prompted to juice things up to promote readership.  And so the word “paradox” in the title, denoting some sort of self-contradiction — in this case, that school choice increases segregation in NYC — may be a step further than the authors originally intended. After all, there’s no inherent incongruity between parents selecting schools for their kids and an attendant increase/decrease of diversity, is there?

The topic of NYC public school choice is timely, given the current (appropriate) preoccupation with an intensely segregated school system, especially on the Upper West Side, spotlit last week by this tweet from Chancellor Carranza:

And note that the lead author of the report, Dr. Mader, has done excellent work at the New School; one  example is this report  that rips Mayor de Blasio’s school integration plan to shreds. But with school choice such a trigger point for those engaged in education reform work, it’s critical that discussions be framed fairly and accurately. This report does not meet those criteria. (The New York Times story out this morning mirrors these problems as well.)

Let’s look under the hood of this “paradox of school choice” in New York City. Contrary to popular opinion (shared by Mayor de Blasio and former Chancellor Fariña; not sure where Carranza is on this), the authors say that school segregation is not driven by housing patterns. That’s because New York City, courtesy of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, has so many “unzoned” schools where students can attend no matter where they live. So there’s lots of  public school choice! That’s good, right?

Nope: That’s the “paradox.” Instead, parents who choose to send their child to a non-neighborhood school (an “unzoned” school in NYC parlance) promote segregation. When they enroll their kindergarteners in unzoned schools with better academic records, they leave zoned school with fewer students and, thus, fewer resources.

However, the authors say, if students would just stay in their zones, NYC schools would be less segregated and “children also would be more evenly distributed by race, language status, and income throughout the public schools than they are now.”

Would they? Well, maybe, maybe not. The report says — and kudos to the authors for honesty — that if students attended their zoned neighborhood schools then “the city’s schools would be marginally less segregated than they are now.” (Emphasis my own.) Other conclusions are equally marginal. For methodological reasons, the study is limited to kindergarten students, who may or may not be a representative sample. While the authors look at the schools those five-year-olds leave through their parents’ exercise of school choice, they don’t look at the schools they end up in. For example, let’s say a kindergartener leaves a zoned elementary school to enroll in an unzoned elementary school and, in doing so, makes that unzoned school more diverse. Wouldn’t that reverse this “paradox” by school choice and lead to less segregaton? Or, contrarily, what if this kindergartener is Black and leaves a primarily Black zoned school to enroll in an unzoned school that is also primarily Black?  In this case school choice has zero impact on diversity and the “paradox” disappears.

The study also contains a series of conclusions that pivot on hypotheses, not facts, and could easily be misinterpreted.  Example:

There is no way of knowing how many children would actually attend their zoned schools if there were no public school choice.

Exactly! So how can you draw conclusions given this lack of data?

And a “duh” moment:

Examining schoolwide performance and demographic data for each year prior to the kindergarten choices in our dataset, we found evidence that families of all race/ethnicity groups in NYC appear to consider the academic performance of schools in the choice process.

Here’s a statement of correlation that could easily be mistaken for causality:

Despite the growing diversity of the nation’s school-aged population, the embrace of school choice policy across the country has coincided with an increase in segregation across race, socioeconomic status, and student ability.

And here’s a flawed assumption:

[W]e found that our schools would be less segregated than they are today if all students in public schools attended their zoned schools. This analysis assumes that the students currently in our public school data set would remain in public schools, rather than move to private schools or leave the city.

To be fair, there are unambiguous proof points in this report that should inform school policy. For example, the authors show that the most energetic users of school choice are Black families: “Today, nearly 60 percent of all Black children opt out, up from 38 percent 10 years ago. This is a school choice rate considerably higher than that of White, Asian, and Hispanic children.” They continue,

Last year, nearly 60 percent of Black families with kindergarten-aged children in public schools chose a school, including the 9 percent who lived in all-choice districts. Although Black students only make up about a quarter of all kindergartners in public schools, they comprise over one-third of all school choosers. Even when controlling for socioeconomic and other characteristics, we found that these Black students are 1.6 times more likely to opt out of their zoned schools than non-Black students.”

The next highest demographic of choosers are Latino families, with a rate of school choice up to 39 percent last year. In other words, historically disenfranchised families embrace school choice.

Additionally, the authors vividly expose the ruse in District 3 on the Upper West Side (the subject of Carranza’s tweet and of much media converage):

In New York City, the Center for Immigrant Families (2004) documented the experiences of several parents of color as they explored their elementary school options in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. The Center identified a pattern of “gate keeping” behavior on the part of the schools, such as school officials who told parents a school was “not for them,” that the school application required a photo, and that they could not sit by their kids at breakfast drop-off for fear of the parent eating the free food (quoted in Aggarwal, 2014). They were informed the children would be asked where they slept at night and might receive impromptu visits from social workers to verify this.

Does school choice increase segregation? That’s unclear; at worst, there’s a marginal increase.  Do NYC families, especially those of color, eagerly sign up for non-neighborhood schools in order to increase academic progress for their children? That’s clear as day. No paradox there, just parents doing what’s best for their kids. Let’s stay out of their way.






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