Public schools across the United States have gone through a long process of integration. Since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education trial, public education has been recognized as a civil right. In subsequent years, schools across the country have been attempting to ensure educational equity for all students. Nevertheless, New York City’s public school system remains one of the country’s most segregated, making it difficult for minority children to access the same educational experiences as their peers within the same school district (Chen). New York City has tried to increase educational equity through school choice policies, and while these policies have helped many minority children, they are often inaccessible and can negatively impact the students who do not participate in them.
Integrated schools provide better opportunities for all students. Public schools, especially urban public schools, are of the utmost importance to children, as they cross ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic boundaries (Brown 247). When children are well-educated, they are able to learn not only through academics but also through social conditioning, which in turn aids students with cultural skills applicable outside the classroom. Children in integrated schools are provided with opportunities to understand cultures other than their own, especially in a city as diverse as New York. For minority children, integrated schools tend to provide them with better in-school opportunities than schools that are restricted to their own racial groups. This is likely due to historical factors, such as the fact that primarily white schools have a historically far better system of funding and establishment in the community.
For example, this can be demonstrated through a study of the standardized test scores of Black children after attending a well-integrated and well-funded school. In the study, after Black children attended an integrated school in a wealthy area, their standardized test scores went up (Strauss). In urban areas, such as New York City, the population is more diverse than rural and suburban areas, and the schools have a responsibility to represent the diversity of the city. It is important that the community receives a well-educated young adult group coming out of the public school system, as schools are funded mostly by the community through tax dollars (Brown 248).
One such attempt to even the educational playing field within New York City has been an implementation of school choice policies. School choice policy has developed throughout the years, with supporters saying it is now most successful and helpful to students. School choice within the New York City public schools originally began after the Brown v. Board of Education trial in 1954. Shortly after the Supreme Court decision to integrate schools, school choice was used as a way to keep populations segregated, as it gave the illusion of choice without providing substantive options for Black families living in lower income areas. Though Black minority children could technically attend schools with a primarily white student body, social pressures and threats kept minority Black students mostly contained to the schools they already attended (Mader 5). Well-funded schools were typically located near Midtown Manhattan, where many white people lived, while underfunded schools were located in Harlem and the Bronx, where mostly minorities lived.
As school choice policies have grown throughout the nation and more laws have been implemented regarding fair and equitable integration within schools, school choice has aimed to be a resource for parents of children in the public school system to be able to send their children to well-performing schools without having to pay extra. Ideally, every school in the system will perform at the same level, and serve a diverse and representative group of children. Supporters of school choice, specifically in New York City, claim that it would act as a free market does in a capitalist economy, where schools compete with each other and the school quality is raised across the board (Mader 6).
Though the school choice policies are intended to create educational equity for all students, they often have negative impacts, primarily on minority children. Around 40% of kindergarteners do not attend the elementary schools they are zoned for, the majority of those being minority children (Mader 3). Though some minority children are able to attend well-funded schools outside of their zone, 60% of the most vulnerable population of students around the city are not able to take advantage of that opportunity. Low income families, recent immigrants, and families who do not speak English or are non-native speakers are typically the least likely to opt out of the school they are zoned for.
This could be due to any number of reasons. The application process and lottery systems can be complex and requires prior knowledge of the system, which newcomers might not have. Many parents in these demographics work jobs with hours outside of the typical nine to five pay, meaning they are not always able to accompany their children on the commute to school. This leaves them with the only viable option being keeping their children at local schools, even if they are underperforming (Mader 12). Many parents believe that even if their student attends the local school, they will still be able to apply into and get into a more competitive high school, when the student is old enough to commute by themselves.
Though this would seem to be a successful plan, by the time the child is able to apply to a high school, children who attended underperforming local elementary schools have already been disadvantaged and are forced to play “catch-up” to children who had strong local public schools. Even when parents are able to dedicate the time and effort to researching schools and assisting their children in completing high school applications, there is no guarantee that they will receive the quality education they were promised. Schools that are high achieving often do not have any space to enroll transfer students, and the spaces which they do have are quickly filled up (Wall). Thus, students, often from minority backgrounds, are placed on waitlists or forced to attend their local schools, which are typically underfunded, and do not perform as well as those in well-funded or integrated schools.
Though the option to switch schools does provide some opportunities for students whose local public schools may be underperforming, school choice also creates more hurdles for them, as opposed to having local schools that provide equal funding and education. Even when minority parents have enough time and money to spend time researching public school options, opting out of a zone still creates disadvantages for students. As opposed to having accessible and high achieving public schools in their own communities, students are forced to go out of their way to attend high-performing schools. Almost 60% of Black children opt out of their school zone, the majority of them attending charter schools (Mader 3). When minorities attend charter schools and well-funded public schools, they perform better on state tests, closing achievement gaps greatly (Hess). However, children and families should not be forced to jump through hoops to receive a quality education.
When Black children attend schools outside of their own communities, they often face guilt for leaving their own communities (Strauss). This can fracture community relations when children who grow up together and spend all of their out of school time together are sent to schools with different atmospheres, funding, and overall environments (Wall). Additionally, minority children who attend public schools outside of their own community often face ostracization from their peers, both at school and at home, and may suffer from imposter syndrome as they feel they do not deserve the opportunities they have been given (Mader 24).
Setting aside the children who face these additional challenges by attending well-funded schools through school choice, the program also has negative impacts on the students who are left behind in underperforming schools. Though some families within minority groups have the resources available to opt out of their local schools, the vast majority of minority students do not. As students leave schools throughout the city, the per-pupil funding that goes along with the students is taken away from the school. As the majority of children who do not transfer schools are low-income and speak limited English, it puts more pressure on the schools. Both populations have individual and unique challenges, meaning schools require many resources in order to support the student community as a whole. As the English-speaking and higher income minority students move away, “declining budgets combined with higher need student populations mean that these schools are forced to do more with less” (Mader 24). Essentially, local schools must help disadvantaged students while simultaneously enduring budget cuts across the board.
Though on paper school choice policies seem to provide better integration, when implemented, they can actually lead to more segregation in schools. Though diversity across the city has increased, diversity within the city’s public school system has decreased as school choice policies become more popular (Mader 24). While this is a correlation, there is not necessarily a causal relationship between the two; it is true that if every student who had switched out of their zone had stayed in it, the school system would be less segregated (Mader 4). Schools themselves can contribute to the segregation by holding open houses for prospective students during inconvenient hours or socially pressuring lower-income parents by declaring that their school is “not a free-lunch school” (Chen).
Additionally, as wealthy and white parents can see test scores of high performing schools, it indicates to the parents that the school typically has a similar racial and socio-economic makeup to them (Mader 17). Wealthy parents are often wary of sending their children to schools with low test scores, as test scores at a school are typically an indicator of the success children will have in secondary and higher education. Local zoned schools in primarily minority areas often have lower test scores due to lack of resources and underfunding, meaning that even if wealthy parents live in a primarily minority area, they often opt to send their children to other schools (Wall). This means that those parents, primarily non-English speakers and low-income, who do not have the resources to complete school choice applications are left with struggling schools.
School choice in New York City was created to serve the purpose of providing opportunities for children who lived in areas of the city with underfunded schools or more financial need. No matter the intentions of the policy, the impacts of the school choice system in the city have harmed minority, particularly Hispanic and Black communities. If fifty parents want their child to attend the best school in the city, but there are only twenty spots at said school, thirty parents will be left with unappealing options.
The complicated application and lottery system, combined with the fact that many schools make themselves unappealing towards minority students, means that the twenty students who end up attending the best schools are typically white or higher income. Adding an application to attend public school on top of a family that is already low income or does not speak English makes something that should be a civil right, an equal education, a complex and unwelcoming process. Not only does this create inequality within schools, but it contributes to an overall cycle of low-income families.
The New York City government has, as recently as 2017, been attempting to offer solutions for its students. Mayor Bill de Blasio proposes to create a more integrated school system and create educational equity among white and minority students. One of the goals of de Blasio’s plan is increasing the number of students in “racially representative” schools by 50,000 within the next five years. “Racially representative” means that Black and Hispanic students make up between 50-90% of the students, in order for the public schools to represent the true diversity of the city (New York City Board of Education).
Another goal of the plan is to decrease the number of schools where the average economic need of the school varies more than 10% from the average economic need of the city. The final main goal of the mayor is to increase the number of “inclusive” schools. These inclusive schools would provide accessible resources for students who do not speak English or who speak English as their second language. Additionally, they would provide resources for students who have disabilities, whether physical or cognitive (New York City Board of Education). This offers some solutions, especially having accountable goals which can be reached.
Some people believe that de Blasio’s plan to fix the issues within the school choice system treat the issue as simply a policy problem. Opponents of de Blasio’s plan argue that the issue of school choice is actually a “symptom of ingrained structural injustice in the city institutions,” and de Blasio’s solution is a surface level fix to a deeper issue (Chen). Many believe the issue is deeply systemic and cannot be fixed with something as superficial as one plan.
There is no perfect way to solve the issues that plague current school choice policies in New York City. When approaching policy, it is important for lawmakers to remember it is every student’s right to receive an education that matches that of their peers. Just because a child lives in a less financially stable household or does not speak English does not mean they deserve a lesser education.
There is no one solution to ensure that every child receives a fair and equitable education. Any solution offered must be multi-tiered and provide different levels with which to solve the problem: both fixing the systemic issues and providing immediate help towards students. Obviously, systematic reform to school choice policies is necessary and is the responsibility of the New York City Board of Education, but, for the time being, providing parents with all necessary information for them to make the best decisions regarding their children’s education is one critical solution for the issue of school choice.
Brown, Frank. “Problems and Promises of Urban Public Schools.” The Journal of Negro Education 44, no. 3, 1975, 247–256. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2966594.
Chen, Michelle. “New York’s Separate and Unequal Schools.” The Nation, 20 Feb. 2018, thenation.com/article/new-yorks-separate-and-unequal-schools.
Hess, Frederick M. “Does School Choice ‘Work’?” National Affairs 41, Fall 2019, https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/does-school-choice-work.
Mader, Nicole, et al. Paradox of Choice: How School Choice Divides New York City Elementary Schools. New York City: The New School Center for New York City Affairs, 2018.
New York City Board of Education, Office of the Mayor. Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools. New York City Board of Education, 7 June 2017.
Strauss, Valerie. “New York City should set ambitious diversity goals for public schools: New Report by Panel Commissioned by Mayor.” The Washington Post, 12 Feb. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/02/12/new-york-city-should-set-ambitious-diversity-goals-public-schools-new-report-by-panel-commissioned-by-mayor/.
Wall, Patrick. “The Privilege of School Choice.” The Atlantic, 25 Apr. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/04/the-privilege-of-school-choice/524103.