January 24, 2017; New York Times
New York City’s School District Three goes from Harlem south to 59th Street in the heart of Manhattan. It includes some of New York’s wealthiest neighborhoods and some of its poorest. A look at the state of schools in this district can provide an interesting perspective on the educational marketplace that has been the objective of the national education reform strategy.
According to an in-depth report by the New York Times, “the district’s schools…are sharply divided by race and income, and diverge just as sharply in their levels of academic achievement…the children in the Harlem schools are mostly black and Hispanic and low-income, while the majority of children in the district’s other elementary schools are white or Asian, and either middle class or wealthy.”
Schools in the wealthier part of the district are among the best in the city and provide a wide range of educational opportunities, including programs for gifted and talented students. In stark contrast, public schools in the much less affluent Harlem portion of the district perform poorly. Traditional public schools in the wealthier areas are at or over their capacities, while the Harlem schools are relatively empty. In Harlem, school choice has seen public charter schools, defined by the school district as “part of the New York City Department of Education’s strategy for providing families with an increased number of high-quality school options” flourish and pull enrollment from traditional public schools.
What does this tell us about school choice? Reform advocates call this a success story. The ability to select the school of their choice allows parents to evaluate options and vote with their feet. Struggling schools in Harlem are seeing students move to better schools rather than remain “trapped” in failing programs. And, over time, these schools will no longer have enough students to continue to operate and will close their doors. What we are seeing today is just a midpoint stop along the way to all children being in a high performing school. From the perspective of market-based school reformers, this is exactly why the market has the power to fix our schools most effectively.
But what if the market doesn’t operate fairly? Beyond the nuts and bolts of their educational programs, public schools needed to be able to market themselves effectively, often without the marketing budgets or expertise available to the district’s charter schools. District Three Board member Daniel Katz said at a recent meeting, “The schools up here were put in a situation by previous administrations where they were told, ‘Compete for students’, and then the people who told them to compete for students walked away from helping them compete.“
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One parent described her experience to the Times, saying, “When she toured P.S. 149 three years ago, she had thought it was not rigorous enough and lacked many of the benefits that exist in middle-class schools.” Her daughter “would have, frankly, been the only white kid in the class.”
Clara Hemphill, the editor of InsideSchools.org, which reviews schools and advocates greater integration, has been studying District 3 closely. She’s not convinced that marketing is the only issue for public schools:
“The aggressive marketing by charter schools, particularly Success Academy, ‘certainly hurt the district schools,’ she said, “but the district schools did not fight back with effective leadership and teaching, which is what you need.”
Dr. Inyanga Collins, whose daughter has attended a traditional public school, told the Times, “I feel as though the school is doing their part—we as parents have to step up and do our part.”
The introduction of school choice has disrupted and forced change upon a static public education system that was not serving all of its students well. One outcome may be the end of neighborhood schools as we have known them. In this new reality, schools will no longer focus their resources solely on their students, their community, and on their educational mission. Rather, they will need to operate like businesses in a competitive, churning marketplace and advertise their services effectively. Is this a price worth paying for having children in good schools?—Martin Levine