School Choice? A Question of Time and Money

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In a New York Times op-ed article on Monday, Natalie Hopkinson writes that school choice in her neighborhood in Washington has destroyed community-based education for working-class families. With New York ranked No. 1 in the nation in giving parents and students choices, according to one study last week, Amy Stuart Wells, a parent of an eighth grader and a professor at Teachers College, has her own take on New York's system.

When my son’s high school choice process began last spring, I already had a full-time job. I was not looking for a second one. But as the summer turned to fall, and the high school touring and test-taking kicked into full gear, I watched as many 8th grade parents (myself included) became increasingly bleary eyed and overwhelmed.

We sought each other’s empathy and commented that orchestrating our children’s school choices was like a full-time job -- a second one for many of us.

Amy-Stuart-WellsTeachers College Amy Stuart Wells

The consensus “on the ground” about the amount of time this process was taking made me wonder why the economics of doing the “work” of choosing among many schools is not part of the story of school choice in America?

As someone who has studied school choice programs for many years, I know it is common for their supporters to argue that the kind of options we have here in New York City allows all families -- regardless of income or ability to buy expensive homes -- access to good schools.

And it is true that most of our public schools have no formal admissions fees, no tuition, and the computer program that matches students to schools has no data on family income.

Thus, on its surface the city’s school choice process is free and open to all -- a true meritocracy where those who live in brownstones and those who live in housing projects have equal access to schools of choice.

The reality, however, for those of us doing this “work” on a daily basis is that the more money you bring to the process, the better your child’s chances of getting into the most reputable high schools.

In fact, even if you ignore the most obvious cost -- the thousands of dollars you can spend preparing your child for the specialized high school exam that is the only ticket into schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science -- there are plenty of other ways in which money matters in this process.

But most importantly is the old adage that “time is money.” This probably applies to some of us more than others -- especially those who punch a time clock or freelancers and the self-employed.

For parents with jobs like these, the many hours of gathering information, touring and applying to New York City high schools can translate directly into lost income. Those who have more of a financial cushion can do this, others simply cannot.

I heard many 8th grade parents say they could not possibly go on all the mid-morning tours for the schools their children are interested in because they could not take that much time off work.

On the other hand, parents whose spouses make enough money that they do not need to work outside the home -- not an easy feat in an expensive city like New York -- get to go on most if not all tours.

And then there are those of us in the middle -- those with full-time professional jobs with some degree of flexibility, but plenty of demands and responsibilities. We are the ones who end up doing our work at 10 o’clock at night so that we can go on the tour at 10 o’clock in the morning.

As sleep deprived as we may be, at least we get to see many if not all the schools our children want to attend next year. And when we do get to sleep, we can rest assured that our kids will have an advantage in getting into those schools because they often factor in attendance on their tours in the admissions process.

In the final days before the high school applications were due, I spent time organizing all the information we had downloaded and gathered; the pages of notes I took on the dozens of tours and open houses we attended; the books we bought for the sessions with specialized high school exam tutors; and all the insights gleaned from talking to the middle school counselor and other families.

A realistic estimate of the average number of hours per week that I put into this process over the last seven months is about 10, with some weeks, particularly in October, edging closer to 20.

Doing this math makes me tired, for sure. But it also makes me more than a little sad for all those talented New York City 8th graders whose parents had less time, flexibility and resources than I do.

The economics of this time-consuming (almost all-consuming) process as it intersects with the lives of families and the possibility of each student should be more central to our discussions about the benefits of school choice programs.

It’s true that our system may be fairer than one in which every child’s educational fate is tied tightly to their parents’ ability to buy or rent expensive real estate. In fact, New York just ranked No. 1 in the nation in a Brookings Institution report comparing school districts based on their school choice policies. We have, it seems, the highest number of “alternatively available schools.” But that is little consolation to the student whose parent can’t get off work for school tours that decide their school choices.