"Choice" and the Re-Segregation of NYC Schools

In today's political climate, finding the appropriate language with which to talk about race and class in education is difficult and often uncomfortable. Although the picture of a post-racial, “colorblind” America is an alluring one, this conception of the country is far too hopeful and ultimately, false.

Over the last two decades, New York City public schools have experienced greater racial segregation. As school choice and private education have attracted more wealthy and well-resourced families, many schools have become concentrated with minority students that display high rates of poverty. The socio-economic status of students, factors that are out of the school’s control, greatly influence students’ academic success. For example, access to healthy food and a stable home environment significantly affect a child’s ability to focus and feel motivated in class. Consequently, students that lack these privileges continue to underperform and the achievement gap persists.

To combat the closure of schools and provide families with the ability to avoid chronically failing institutions, New York City provides school “choice” (you may have heard Betsy DeVos talk at length on this) by enabling students to attend schools within the larger scope of their district. The hope behind school choice is that schools will become more integrated as minority students are provided greater mobility to attend higher performing schools. However, the flexibility of school choice remains limited for students who grow up in immigrant or impoverished families due to the fact that they lack the resources, time or knowledge to take advantage of the policy. Further, relocating into high-performing schools may require the student to test in and undergo an interview to be accepted. Although school choice is able to provide greater opportunity to select minority students, the vast majority of them continue to attend their local failing school or relocate to another school that is only marginally better. Consequently, the cycle of school failure persists, so too does the achievement gap.

We place the blame on unqualified teachers who fail to ‘teach to the test.' However, the systemic problems such as zoning laws, poverty and race relations all contribute to the degraded quality of our public education system. The larger, more deeply set issues are not discussed as often in the public arena, consequently, the solutions that are implemented act as quick band-aid fixes, which fail to make any meaningful progress in education. The restructuring of a nation’s education system must be a thorough and long-term process that begins from the ground-up.