In 2006, Leslie Seifert, a white father in New York City, was torn between seeking the best possible education for his five-year-old daughter and sending her to a lower-performing neighborhood school with a predominantly minority student body. He ended up deciding to send her to a higher-performing school outside of the neighborhood, as he wrote in an article for The Atlantic. But he believes that changing school choice policies for kindergarten could help mend the inequities in the city’s education system and prevent parents like him from having to choose between maximizing their children’s education and improving others’. Increased choice, he argues, would raise the stunningly low number of black and Hispanic students at New York’s most selective public high schools.

Tiers have long characterized American education system. The continued division is made stark in divergent AP test scores and graduation rates for students from different racial backgrounds. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, media scrutiny has exposed Ferguson, Missouri’s severely segregated education system. But according to the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, the state with the greatest racial and economic segregation in its school systems is New York.

Seeking Selective Schools

New York City’s eight most selective public high schools remain a controversial example of segregation. While 68 percent of the city’s students are black or Hispanic, only 12 percent of eighth graders accepted to these schools are. Due to this discrepancy, the NAACP and other organizations charged the city with violating the Civil Rights Act in September 2012.

Specialized high school admissions do not have to function so rigidly. Chicago, for example, takes socioeconomic status into account in admissions to its 10 selective high schools. Century Foundation senior fellow Richard D. Kahlenberg explained to the HPR that when he worked with Chicago Public Schools, “they were able to diversify racially and ethnically by looking at socioeconomic status and giving economically disadvantaged students a better chance of being admitted. That’s the type of program that I would recommend for New York City, because the students who did pretty well despite facing socioeconomic obstacles … have a lot of potential and deserve to be at these selective schools.”

The issue, however, originates long before high school. Of students admitted to the specialized high schools in New York City, over half come from just five percent of middle schools, mostly “Gifted & Talented” schools and other academic that offer a rigorous curriculum to capable students. Just 11 percent of Gifted & Talented schools’ students are black.

In contrast, quality schools are less common in economically disadvantaged districts. School quality varies widely by borough and district—in the Bronx, there are no Gifted & Talented elementary schools. Manhattan, by contrast, possesses three. As Seifert wrote in his Atlantic article, the scarcity of quality schools compounds with other factors to produce harmful consequences for minority students.

The Cambridge Model

Adjusting school zones to increase diversity may cut across demographic divides, but it also carries great political risk, since New Yorkers who are satisfied with their local schools—often those who have the means to contribute to political campaigns—want to maintain access to those institutions. Studies show that families typically select schools requiring the shortest commute, even when presented with academically superior alternatives. They are also likely to prefer schools racially and socioeconomically similar to their own backgrounds.

Cambridge, Mass. has succeeded where New York City has failed and avoided the thorny issue of rezoning. Though a far smaller city, its model of “controlled choice” might be transferrable. As of 1981, no Cambridge elementary school is zoned by residential address. Instead, parents select their top choices, and these preferences, along with the city’s socioeconomic breakdown, play a role in admissions decisions. Until 2001—six years before the Supreme Court ruled against race-based public school admissions—every elementary school’s population also had to match the city’s racial demographics. Now Cambridge’s deciding factor is the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Between 85 and 90 percent of students attend their parents’ first-choice school. And while just 60 percent of black males graduate from high school nationally, 90 percent do in Cambridge. Still, in terms of racial and gender breakdowns, the policy is not a perfect fix: the city still struggles with uneven demographic breakdowns in standardized test scores. Still, controlled choice has been far more successful than Boston’s busing system, which pushed white families to move outside the city or send their children to private school.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, when school choice is available, 20 percent of white families, 26 percent of Hispanic families, and 36 percent of black families take part. When families aren’t satisfied, they sometimes move to the districts they prefer: 29 percent of white families, 25 percent of Hispanic families, and 18 percent of black families have chosen their current neighborhood of residence because of the quality of its schools.

Controlled choice also can be a powerful way to ensure socioeconomic integration. Kahlenberg argued that such a goal is a compelling reason to pursue the policy. Similarly, Cambridge Public Schools chief operating officer James Maloney told the HPR that controlled choice is achieving its goal of economic diversity in classrooms. “We [have] more children in more schools that [are] economically balanced than we had 10 years ago,” he said. “Coincidentally, we have kids in more racially diverse schools now.”


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Bringing Controlled Choice to New York

Controlled choice has some precedent in the city. Already, P.S. 133 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, allots 35 percent of its spots to English-language learners and free- or reduced-lunch students, a response to the neighborhood’s worsening housing segregation. Charter schools also are permitted to establish similar arrangements.

“Communities are becoming whiter and [more] affluent, especially in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and anything that they can do to balance that would be a good thing,” Teachers College, Columbia University sociology and education professor Amy Stuart Wells explained in an interview with the HPR. “Something like controlled choice would be able to do that. … [Schools] won’t be [diverse] in the long run if something isn’t done … to stabilize these populations and to make sure that the enrollment policy has diversity as a goal.”

These objectives seem to require government action. Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and the editor of the blog NYC Public School Parents, told the HPR, “Most parents want a quality education for their child, and diversity does not come up on the top of that list.” Wells agrees, arguing against the idea that “families or the Department of Education can do it on their own. I think there needs to be cooperation.” The policy could also remove much of parents’ concern about school demographics: if implemented effectively, every school’s demographics would more closely reflect the city’s.

The change would meet a demand that has been essentially ignored for 14 years. Though infamous for its reliance on standardized test scores, 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act also set a goal of “closing the achievement gap between […] minority and non-minority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.” This idealistic ambition has failed thus far, but it may not be too late. In particular, NCLB demands that states protect minority and low-income students from being educated by less-qualified teachers. The design of controlled choice achieves this goal: Kahlenberg found that low-income students in classrooms with higher-income peers are often taught by more qualified teachers than they otherwise would be.

Citing a New York Appleseed study, Kahlenberg told the HPR that controlled choice could successfully integrate about 16 of New York’s 32 school districts—not a complete fix, but a good start. “In half of them, it wouldn’t be possible: there are such overwhelming numbers of low-income students [that] it would be very difficult to integrate those schools,” Kahlenberg said. “But there’s so much more that we could be doing in half of the community school districts. This wouldn’t work everywhere, but it would work in a lot of important places within New York City.”


Update (1/8/16, 1:35 p.m.): The title of this article has been changed to reflect the title used in the HPR print edition.

Update (12/3/15, 12:05 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that 60 percent of black males graduate from Cambridge public high schools. This number actually refers to a national statistic, and the article has been corrected to reflect this statement. 

Image Credit: woodleywonderworks/Flickr

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