How Public School High School Choice Reinforces Segregation and Inequality in NYC

Last week, Wendy Lecker, an attorney with New Jersey’s Education Law Center and a columnist for the Stamford Advocate published a commentary that defines the meaning of public services and specifically the meaning of “public” in education: “Michigan professor Marina Whitman recently noted that the essence of a public good is that it is non-excludable; i.e. all can partake, and non-rivalrous; i.e. giving one person the good does not diminish its availability to another. Some school reforms strengthen education as a public good; such as school finance reform, which seeks to ensure that all children have adequate educational resources. Unfortunately, the reforms pushed in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations attack education as a public good.  For example, choice—charters and vouchers…. Choice operates on the excludable premise of ‘saving a few.'”

Lecker explores the exclusionary implications of school privatization—charters and vouchers.  But there is also a way to make the public schools themselves less public, and that is the introduction of school choice into public school districts themselves. This has also been a centerpiece of much of modern school “reform,” and the most basic example has been promoted as a formal policy for school districts to adopt: Portfolio School Reform.  Portfolio School Reform has been formulated into principles and promoted across our nation’s big city school districts by a think tank called the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).  Here is how CRPE defines “portfolio school reform” and its network of “portfolio school districts“: “The portfolio strategy is a problem-solving framework through which education and civic leaders develop a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools. It moves past the one-size-fits-all approach to education. It puts educators directly in charge of their schools, empowers parents to choose the right schools for their children, and focuses school system leaders on overseeing school success.”

There is a lot of rhetoric in this definition about creating autonomous public schools, moving past one-size-fits-all schools, and putting educators directly in charge.  It is hard to know what all this means, but the next clause is clearer: Portfolio School Reform “empowers parents to choose the right schools for their children.”  And CRPE’s rhetoric promises that parents will all have the right to choose “a great school for every child in every neighborhood.”  Portfolio school reform theory posits the creation of privatized alternatives but it also includes the creation of public school alternatives, many of them themed magnet schools, and many of them selective. The schools are to be managed like a stock portfolio with the school district continually investing in new alternatives and shedding the failed investments.

One of the very first and certainly the largest of the portfolio districts was launched by Michael Bloomberg when he was mayor of New York City—a massive experiment in both public and charter school choice.  Bloomberg’s experiment has been around now for fifteen years, and even before that, for decades, New York City has boasted specialized, selective high schools for students who score high on an entrance exam. One of the problems with New York City’s system is that it has become among the most racially segregated in the United States.

Last week a stunning NY Times investigative report explained just how Bloomberg’s portfolio school reform school choice plan has been cementing inequality for the city’s children instead of expanding opportunity as the rhetoric would have you believe. In New York City all of the school district’s eighth graders have been expected to choose from among hundreds of the city’s high schools.

Before looking at last week’s NY Times report, it is worthwhile to acknowledge that there were warnings that universal high school choice would likely exacerbate inequality.  Back in 2009, in a report, The New Marketpace, the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs warned about problems already apparent in NYC’s policy of closing comprehensive high schools, launching smaller high schools of choice, and setting up a system by which thousands of thirteen-year-olds would choose their high school: “The system of school choice assumes each child has a parent or other adult who is willing and able to take the time to tour schools and fill out applications.  In fact, many children have no such help. Some 14,000 high school students each year are assigned to schools they did not choose… Students with special needs are often assigned to schools that don’t have the services they need.  The Department of Education has no formal mechanism for matching a child’s particular needs with the programs offered at a school… Children whose parents speak a language other than English, who represent 42 percent of the student population, are at a particular disadvantage in the high school admissions process… Struggling students are shut out of many of the best schools…. Many middle-school guidance counselors, charged with helping students fill out their high school applications, are overwhelmed by huge caseloads and the sheer complexity of giving meaningful advice about 400 different schools.”  Then there was a second report, Over the Counter, Under the Radar, that exposed the New York City school district’s practice of shunting students who move to the city mid-year or who do not submit a school choice application into under-enrolled public high schools, many of them on the closure list.

Now several years later, the school match process has been improved with a mathematical algorithm that guarantees most students a place in one of their 12 choice high schools, but the NY Times’ new report, The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools, clarifies problems that remain: “Under a system created during Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, eighth graders can apply anywhere in the city, in theory unshackling them from failing, segregated neighborhood schools. Students select up to 12 schools and get matched to one by a special algorithm. This process was  part of a package of Bloomberg-era reforms intended to improve education in the city and diminish entrenched inequities… But school choice has not delivered on a central promise: to give every student a real chance to attend a good school. Fourteen years into the system, black and Hispanic students are just as isolated in segregated high schools as they are in elementary schools—a situation that school choice was supposed to ease. Within the system, there is a hierarchy of schools, each with different admissions requirements—a one-day high-stakes test, auditions, showing up for an open house. And getting into the best schools, where almost all students graduate and are ready to attend college, often requires top scores on the state’s annual math and English tests and a high grade point average. Those admitted to these most successful schools remain disproportionately middle class and white or Asian… At the same time, low-income black or Hispanic children… are routinely shunted into schools with graduation rates 20 or more percentage points lower… And so it is a system in which some children win and others lose because of factors beyond their control—like where they live and how much money their families have.”

So, what about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s belief that parents want and need school choice and are prepared to engage in school choice?  In NYC today there are 439 high schools to choose from—described for eighth graders and their parents in a book the size of a telephone book: “The sheer number of choices offers up great possibilities, but it can also make the system maddeningly complex, with so many requirements, open houses, deadlines and portfolios to keep track of… Rare is a 13-year-old equipped to handle the selection process alone.  The process can become like a second job for some parents as they arm themselves with folders, spreadsheets and consultants who earn hundreds of dollars an hour to guide them. But most families in the public school system have neither the flexibility nor the resources to match that arsenal.”

Then there are the hidden barriers built into the system, barriers that may be poorly understood by parents and are almost always invisible to pre-adolescents who are likely to assume the competition is happening on a level playing field. New York City’s eighth graders really began participating in this uneven competition in pre-school and Kindergarten as savvy, privileged parents jockeyed to enroll their children in schools with special advantages: “(I)n practice, children who grow up in neighborhoods with low-performing elementary schools tend to go to low-performing middle schools, then on to high schools with low graduation rates and even lower college-readiness rates.” Here are some of the barriers: “The high school directory lists 29 programs in the city that did not accept anyone with a score lower than 3 on the math exam. Advanced courses taught at many feeder schools also create an advantage. One expert on the system is quoted: “When it is time to apply to high school and create a portfolio, which is required in some cases, they ‘will just have a lot more they can pull from.'”  A school counselor from one huge middle school explains, “We have teachers who have no idea they need to be holding on to students’ work, and they throw it out because they have no place to put it… So for a lot of these students, when it comes time to submit a portfolio, they have nothing to submit.”

Remember Wendy Lecker’s principle that public services are defined as being non-rivalrous—the idea that giving one person an opportunity does not diminish its availability to another? Public services are defined by their capacity to serve all.  But today instead, New York City’s high school choice program is grounded on an ethos of individualism—the idea that we ought to reward individual patience, promise, and determination. School choice rewards the children and parents who can find the lifeboat; who know how to get to the front of the line; who are strong enough to climb in and find a secure seat; and who can then hold on to their seat even if others fall away into the raging sea.

In New York City, despite that all races have losers as well as winners, the idea of school choice is framed on the illusion that every child can be the winner of the competition.  Instead the system has been quietly designed to favor the children of money, privilege and power—the children whose parents  have the time and the wherewithal to calculate and play the system. In such a system, there is also an incentive for the school district to invest unevenly, favoring the specialty schools with expert teachers and the kind of specialty curriculum that is likely to be sought by the parents who are active choosers. Instead our society ought to be investing in an equitable public system—the kind of school finance reform Lecker describes—to ensure that all high schools across the school district can provide excellent instruction and enriched curriculum.

Last fall, the NAACP passed a national resolution opposing school choice through the expansion of charter schools.  But one of the principles in the NAACP’s resolution speaks not only to problems with school privatization but also to the danger of the kind of public school choice that is evident in New York City. The NAACP demands that our society “cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest-performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

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