Unequal Access and Denial of Opportunity: the Collateral Damage of Portfolio School Reform

Last week, after New York City’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, expressed an interest in running for President, this blog reviewed the history of the school reform scheme he imposed during his three term tenure as mayor. In 2002, he convinced the state legislature to grant him mayoral governance of the city’s schools.  He and Joel Klein, the prominent attorney he appointed as his schools chancellor, imposed what was—nearly two decades ago—a new kind of school governance scheme.

The New York City Schools were among the early so-called “portfolio school districts,” and the district remains part of the Portfolio School Reform Network, big city school districts which adopted portfolio governance theory from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Gates-funded think tank at the University of Washington, Bothell.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein launched this scheme in New York City by creating district-wide school choice, breaking up large comprehensive high schools into small schools with curricular specialties, encouraging the opening of a large number of charter schools, co-locating many schools—small specialty public schools along with charter schools—into the same buildings.  Those running the school district would consider all of these schools of choice as if they were investments in a stock portfolio. The district would hold on to the successful investments and phase out those whose test scores were low or which families didn’t choose.

Portfolio school reform has created collateral damage across the school districts which have experimented with the idea. After the Chicago Public Schools, another district managed by portfolio school reform theory, closed 50 schools at the end of the 2013 school year, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research, and separately a University of Chicago sociologist, Eve Ewing tracked widespread community grieving when neighborhoods lost the public school institutions that had anchored their neighborhoods.

But there have been other kinds of collateral damage beyond the tragedy of school closures. In a new piece for the NY Times, Eliza Shapiro documents how district-wide school choice in New York City has contributed to inequity along with racial and economic segregation.

One problem is inequitable access to information. Parents who can afford to pay for consultants and who have the skills and position to understand how to navigate the system are able to privilege their own children with access to the schools widely thought to be desirable.  Shapiro explains: “There is a trick to getting to the front of the lines that clog sidewalks outside New York City’s top public high schools each fall. Parents who pay $200 for a newsletter compiled by a local admissions consultant know that they should arrive hours ahead of the scheduled start time for school tours. On a recent Tuesday, there were about a hundred mostly white parents queued up at 2:30 p.m. in the spitting rain outside of Beacon High School, some toting snacks and even a few folding chairs for the long wait. The doors of the highly selective, extremely popular school would not open for another two hours for the tour. Parents and students who arrived at the actual start time were in for a surprise. The line of several thousand people had wrapped around itself, stretching for three midtown Manhattan blocks.”

Shapiro explains that privilege in a school choice marketplace can even come down to which parents have free time during the day or jobs that will let them leave for several hours, while other parents can’t take time off when school tours are scheduled during the workday: “Tens of thousands of eligible families were not there at all.  Many New Yorkers cannot leave work in the middle of the afternoon, and some students surely did not know that the open house—or even the school—existed in the first place. Beacon’s admissions rate is roughly akin to Yale’s: there were over 5,800 applicants for 360 ninth-grade seats last year.”

Shapiro summarizes the inequitable consequences of a system which privileges families who can afford consultants and who are in a position to acquire insider knowledge about specific schools and the workings of the school choice process: “Though New York’s school system is mostly black and Hispanic, its highest-performing schools are largely white and Asian. Beacon’s student population was half white last year, and about a quarter of its students were low-income, compared to about three-quarters of the district as a whole… Under a school choice system created by Michael R. Bloomberg when he was mayor, the city allows students to apply to up to 12 high schools anywhere in New York, and an algorithm matches children with one school.”

Shapiro describes the selection process: “Though there is no penalty for students who do not attend a tour, Beacon’s two open houses provide the only opportunity most families have to see inside the school… Beacon, unlike Stuyvesant, does not have an admissions test.  But to win a spot, students must have high standardized test scores and grades, along with a strong portfolio of middle school work and admissions essays.  Students are much less likely to be accepted if they do not list Beacon as their top choice.”

Some schools have found ways to market themselves without what have become exclusive tours: “Bard High School Early College, which typically has about 7,000 applicants for 300 freshman seats at its two diverse campuses offers weekly school tours and holds events for families to learn about the school in all five boroughs. Another highly selective school, Manhattan Hunter Science High School, halted its open houses after the lines became too unwieldy. The school now posts virtual tours on its website.”

My own children graduated from a racially and economically diverse public high school in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Articles like Shapiro’s cause me to appreciate our family’s privilege in a way I had never really previously considered.  From the time they entered Kindergarten, our children knew they would someday go to the big high school at the corner of Cedar and Lee.  At a week-long summer music camp in our school district, middle school students play side-by-side with some of the members of the the high school band and orchestra. Our daughter learned to know the high school tennis coach when he worked with younger students in the city recreation program. And the summer before his high school freshman year, our son, knowing that the high school cross country team worked out in a city park during August, went to the park and asked the coach if he could start working out with the team. High school for our children was a natural, predictable, and exciting transition. How lucky we were.

2 thoughts on “Unequal Access and Denial of Opportunity: the Collateral Damage of Portfolio School Reform

  1. My guess is that none of the parents of the over 100,000 homeless school children in New York, reported on in this week’s New York Times, were waiting in line outside Beacon.

  2. Pingback: Jan Resseger: The Tragedy of “Portfolio Districts” | Diane Ravitch's blog

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