'Controlled Choice' for Integrating Schools: What It's All About

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Some parents in New York City's School District 1 have proposed a system known as controlled choice in order to better integrate its schools. The school district includes the East Village, part of Chinatown and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The controlled choice model would tinker with admissions rules so that every elementary school better reflected the economic variety of the district as a whole.

Here's how it would work:

District 1

District 1 has about 5,700 public elementary school students enrolled this school year. They are 50 percent Latino, 18 percent Asian, 15 percent black and 15 percent white.

But the individual schools are not evenly integrated. One — P.S. 184 — is overwhelmingly Asian, for example, while another, the East Village Community School, is mostly white.

In order to smooth out the discrepancies so that each school looks more like the district as a whole, which is what controlled choice aims to achieve, 28 percent of the district's students would have to switch schools.

But the city can't use race in admissions, following a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court Ruling. So the Community Education Council for District 1 has proposed using socioeconomic status as a proxy instead. 

Under the proposal, parents would rank schools they wanted their children to attend, but the city would also consider whether the students qualified for free or reduced priced lunch when assigning incoming kindergarten students to different schools.

Right now, 77.6 percent of elementary school students in District 1 live in poverty. But again, the demographics of individual schools vary. Some schools have a poverty rate of less than 50 percent, while others see rates higher than 95 percent.

For each school to have the same poverty rate, 10.9 percent of students would have to change schools, significantly fewer than when equalizing the schools' racial makeup. To be clear, controlled choice would not require enrolled students to change schools; the proposal would apply only to incoming kindergarten students.

Even if controlled choice was adopted in District 1, it's an open question whether it would work elsewhere in New York City. For one, the district is one of the smallest, encompassing just a couple of neighborhoods. Neighboring District 2 stretches from E. 100th Street to Battery Park. 

And District 1's elementary student makeup mirrors citywide averages racially and economically pretty closely. Most districts don’t, and several have populations of poor and minority students out of proportion to the city as a whole. If those districts balanced their schools the way that District 1 parents are proposing, the changes wouldn’t make their elementary schools match the citywide average.

Methodology:

We looked at schools with any elementary school grades (K-5) and no students in grades 9 through 12 in the 2015-2016 school year. This includes K-8 schools. This data is from the New York City Department of Education's "Demographic Snapshot." 

We excluded charter schools, District 75 Special Education schools, and citywide gifted and talented schools because they would not enter into the mix if a district implemented controlled choice in the way it is proposed for District 1. As a group, charter elementary schools have a lower percentage of students in poverty (70.9 percent compared to 80.7 percent in traditional public schools) and a higher percentage of black students (54.6 percent compared to 22.2 percent in traditional public schools).