School Choice, New York-Style? For Some More Than Others

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The application process for admission to middle school dominated the school year for our family. There were open houses, a districtwide school fair and, for families applying to gifted and talented programs known as “citywides,” assessments and interviews to sort children.

We took five school tours, which required that parents take time off from work. Our son missed five half-days of school and endured listening to principals talk in packed auditoriums about their school’s data, including acceptance rates to competitive high schools.

This is school choice, New York City-style.

Nationally, the words “school choice” are associated with school vouchers and charter schools. The central argument for school choice in this context is that parents have a right to opt out of the regular public school system if schools fail children.

Whatever the argument for school choice elsewhere, in New York City public schools it plays out very differently. Instead of providing better education for all children, choice in New York City ensures a two-tiered system powered by demographics and ZIP codes more than anything else.

With few exceptions, the opportunity gap directs where kids go to school. This claim is backed up by a recent study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which found that poor and minority students have fewer opportunities to attend the “best” public schools because of where they live. (Editor's Note: the Schott study did not include charter schools.)

This year 11 percent of children accepted to gifted and talented programs are black, though blacks make up 30 percent of the student body.

In December 2011, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott told members of the audience at a public forum in Brooklyn that the city’s families have more choices now than ever before, evidenced by the new school application that allows parents to list up to 12 choices.

The reality is that in our district, which encompasses five neighborhoods that vary widely in terms of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, the “top” middle schools have many more white and middle-class children attending them than do other schools.

Factoring in our son’s state test scores and report card grades, we selected three schools to which he was eligible to apply. The chart below presents demographic information and grade-level rates of children who attend these three schools. It also includes three other schools in our district to which we did not apply, although we were eligible. (Much of the data for the chart came from; the information about applications in 2010 came from a middle school flier given to all District 15 parents.)

Sonia E. Murrow Choice ChartSonia E. Murrow

A close look at the chart demonstrates the ways these six schools are similar and/or different from one another.

One school provides free lunch to 93.1 percent of children. Another provides free lunch to 24.4 percent of children.

One school has a student body that is 85 percent Hispanic. Another school has a student body that is 1 percent Asian.

The number of applicants for seats varies, with one school selecting 80 children out of more than 1,000 applicants in 2010.

There was a chance that our son would not get into the schools we listed first, second or even third on the middle school application. Yet, the stress on our family aside, we are at the top of the pile in this process.

We live in an upper-middle-class enclave and have access, because of our ZIP code, to an elementary school led by an exemplary principal who hires strong, experienced teachers. Because of the resources made available to our son, he performs competently on state tests, as do nearly all of the children in his elementary school.

School choice for families in our neighborhood means that they can choose schools with a majority of children who score similarly to their own children on state tests and who are not majority poor, black, Hispanic or immigrant.

Lower-performing children, many of them poor, black, Hispanic and immigrant, however, were not eligible to apply to the schools my son did because they did not score “3” or above on state tests and/or in academic subjects in fourth grade.

These kids will attend schools that in some cases have 11 percent of children at grade level in reading and writing. In some cases these schools are majority black or Hispanic. They have high teacher turnover.

So do their families have school choice in the way that we did?

Importantly, many New York City parents cannot make their child’s middle school application process a full-time or second job like many of my peers have. Many parents face getting fired for taking time off from work. Many parents do not have the resources and time to prepare children for entrance exams and auditions. And many children attend schools that do not prepare them, either.

Across the last decade, New York City has mandated school choice at the middle school level. “Zone” schools, which offered a seat to all middle school kids in their neighborhoods, no longer exist.

But even before the era of mandatory choice in New York City, high-achieving kids were able to opt out of their zone school for a gifted and talented program. So, before choice was mandated, some families had choice.

Proponents of choice argue that it introduces competition to the system, pushing weaker schools to improve. However, the “better” middle schools are able to choose well-prepared students in the first place. And, in many cases, these kids perform well because of the advantages they have had since birth, including attending preschool, having parents who read to them and taking part in enrichment activities outside of school that wealthier parents pay for.

We waited nervously for the letter assigning our son to his middle school to arrive. We worried we did not order our choice application correctly. Should our second choice really have been our first choice?

We worried that our son’s commute home from middle school would not be safe. We worried that he would not get personal attention in a large school on our choice list. But, at the end of the day, we knew he will have many advantages by attending one of the schools we were able to choose — and that most of the middle school children across our district and the city will not have those kinds of choices.

The admissions letters arrived on Monday, and our son and almost all of his school friends got their first choice. This is not surprising. With few exceptions, the opportunity gap directs where kids go to school.