In Tuesday night’s debate, Mike Bloomberg defended his education legacy in New York City. He was the city’s mayor, and the state-appointed leader of the city’s schools for over a decade from 2002 until 2013. In Tuesday’s debate, he repeated his support for charter schools—and by extension the imposition of universal high school choice across NYC’s enormous school district, serving 1.1 million students.
One of NYC’s best known public school advocates, Leonie Haimson explains, “When I heard that he was running for president, it felt like the return of a bad dream.” Haimson personally lived through the decade when Bloomberg brought technocratic, corporate style disruption and marketplace policy to the NYC schools. She watched the process from the inside. But even from far away, I will never forget learning about Bloomberg’s radical experiment: Bloomberg obliterated the city’s institutional infrastructure of regional and neighborhood high schools. Although overall the high school graduation rate rose, the high school closures, intensifying racial and economic segregation, and the school choice disruption undermined the whole endeavor. And once such an experiment is launched there is no going back.
At a Children’s Defense Fund conference eight or nine years ago, I found myself eating lunch with several NYC middle school guidance counselors, who described the impossible task of trying to help dozens of eighth graders—middle school students without any experience outside of their immediate neighborhoods—sort through a telephone book-sized high school choice guidebook to look for the best high school fit. These counselors told me that they believed NYC high school choice had been, in reality, designed to favor the children of savvy parents who knew how to get their children on the right track beginning in Kindergarten. These counselors were exhausted, overwhelmed, and worried about the effect on vulnerable thirteen-year-olds of losing a stacked school choice competition. They suspected that the new high school choice plan would prove to NYC’s poorest young people that they are losers who can’t possibly triumph.
The counselors told me they were trying to help students choose among schools and programs with which the counselors had no familiarity. Fourteen years into the program, in a 2017 NY Times‘ report, Elizabeth Harris and Ford Fessenden looked back at the challenge these guidance counselors had been trying to describe to me—“the flood of 80,000 eighth graders applying for the city’s public high schools. The field on which they compete is enormous: They have to choose from 439 schools that are further broken up into 775 programs. One program may admit students based on where they live, while another program at the same school may admit only those with strong grades… Rare is a 13-year-old equipped to handle the selection process alone.” And students did not control the final placement. After they listed their top choices, an algorithm determined what was supposedly the best fit and made the assignment.
Harris and Fessenden describe how NYC high school choice was supposed to work, and contrast the theory with what really happened: “Under a system created during Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, eighth graders can apply anywhere in the city, in theory unshackling themselves 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…. Within the system, there is a hierarchy of schools, each with different admission requirements—a one-day high-stakes test, auditions, open houses. 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… Students in competitive middle schools and gifted programs carry advantages into the application season, with better academic preparation and stronger test scores. Living in certain areas still comes with access to sought-after schools. And children across the city compete directly against one another regardless of their circumstances, without controls for factors like socioeconomic status.”
Harris and Fessenden continue: “There are some great options for the families best equipped to navigate the application process. But there are not enough good choices for everyone, so every year thousands of children, including some very good students, end up in mediocre high schools, or worse… (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… An analysis by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that half of all students who got top scores on state tests came from just 45 middle schools out of more than 500. And 60 percent of the students who went to specialized high schools came from those same 45 schools. None of those middle schools are in the Bronx.”
Bloomberg broke up the comprehensive high schools across the city into small high school programs and charter schools co-located into the old high school buildings, but the new smaller schools did not all offer a comprehensive curriculum. In a 2015 report for the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, Clara Hemphill, Nicole Mader and Bruce Cory explain: “While the graduation rate has steadily increased over the past decade, the proportion of students receiving an Advanced Regents diploma—one commonly used measure of college readiness—has stagnated… Today 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry. More than half of the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science… Roughly 21 percent of New York City high school students attend schools that don’t offer courses in both chemistry and physics. Many of these are the new small high schools that proliferated during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg… (Three years of science is a graduation requirement in all city high schools. Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet that requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, ‘living environment’—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.) The result is an intense bifurcation of the city’s public high school system…. Looking at statistics from August 2014, the Center for New York City Affairs found that 48 percent of the New York City public high school students receiving Advanced Regents diplomas are clustered in just 25 schools. At 100 other schools, on the other hand, not a single student received an Advanced Regents diploma.”
This blog has recently covered Mike Bloomberg’s disruptive school reforms in New York City here and here. Why so much concern before Bloomberg, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, competes in Super Tuesday Democratic presidential primary races? I suppose my intense concern reflects the moral flaw in the scheme Bloomberg introduced into NYC’s public schools. The Rev. Jesse Jackson named the problem with school choice competitions: Competitions always create losers as well as winners, and the losers of school choice arrangements are almost always poor children of color. At a 2011 Schott Foundation for Public Education town hall, the Rev. Jackson declared: “There are those who make the case for a race to the top for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody. ”
We need to continue improving access and opportunity in the public schools, for no set of institutions can possibly be utopian. In contrast to neoliberal, disruptive plans featuring the closure of comprehensive high schools, school choice and charter school expansion, however, a system of traditional public schools provides the best chance of balancing the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.