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Over a decade of aggressive “school choice” policies for New York City high school students haven’t closed the gap in graduation rates between students from wealthy families and students living in poverty.
“The well-known link between a student’s neighborhood conditions and educational outcomes is as strong as ever,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps of Measure of America, which conducted the analysis.
For the past twelve years, New York City eighth graders have had no assigned high school. Instead of relying on established feeder patterns and neighborhood-based assignments, students enter into a city-wide ‘choice’ process, where they are placed by lottery (or by application, for the selective high schools) into one of up to twelve schools that interest them.
It’s all well and good for families to be able to choose a specific type of educational experience. But it's unclear why some policymakers and advocates believe that the simple act of being able to choose will somehow improve all schools—or help students overcome myriad disadvantages that have nothing to do with their schools.
Even if “choice” could make that difference, it's highly unlikely that the neediest students would get the most benefit. Parents who work one or more hourly-wage jobs will have less time to attend multiple open houses, set up interviews, and everything else helps people make the most informed choice.
There’s also the issue of fatigue—both in the selection process and in the day-to-day routine. Once again, parents who work multiple jobs, as well as students who have jobs or care for younger family members, will probably have difficulty finding the time and energy to attend choice fairs, open houses, interviews, and preparation sessions for selective admissions tests. And even if they're accepted, students can then face long, challenging commutes.
But the bottom line is that choosing a school doesn’t change any of the daily stresses that can make success elusive for students in high-poverty neighborhoods and schools. “Choice” doesn't magically give parents time to meet with teachers, or monitor homework, or ensure students are meeting course requirements that keep them on track to graduate. Choosing a school isn’t a substitute for having one or both parents at home who have experience with navigating various school structures and life after high school.
Most of all, allowing students to choose schools doesn’t automatically improve schools that weren’t adequately funded, staffed, or resourced to begin with. More than six decades after Brown v. Board, schools are still highly segregated, with students living in poverty most likely to attend under-resourced schools with high concentrations of other needy students. And even after controlling for local costs, new research from EdBuild finds that schools are still funded “by luck and by lot rather than by logic.”
The inconvenient truth in most conversations about school choice and any education outcome, including graduation rates, is the fact that it doesn't compensate for inadequate education funding, a persistent problem in many communities. Even in schools in many middle and upper middle class communities, families report having to fundraise to pay for supplies, enrichment activities and even vital staff like reading teachers. Yet while those schools often have parents with the time and high-powered social networks to host elaborate fundraisers, schools in lower income communities don’t. And these schools also have greater expenses because they have greater proportions of high-need students. Differences in social capital exacerbate existing inequities in resources, which in turn perpetuates the patterns of advantage and disadvantage that put some students on a clear path to graduation, versus a path strewn with multiple obstacles.
Instead of pushing for school choice as a cure-all we should push for better policy choice. We should push policy makers to choose living wage laws, basic income guarantees, and other economic reforms that allow parents and guardians to work humane hours without having to rely on their children to bring in wages to support the family, or care for siblings instead of focusing on their educational goals. We should also push them to choose community schools and other approaches that provide more comprehensive support, so health problems and other issues don’t distract students from learning. Finally, let’s choose better school funding formulas and tax justice so schools have the resources they need.
Sabrina Stevens, is Midatlantic Regional Progressive Education Fellow, and a mother, writer, education advocate, and former teacher based in Washington, DC. She is a founding member of EduColor, a collective that works to elevate the voices of people of color in the education policy dialogue.