How selective – and unequal – the NYC public school system is – in marked contrast to charter schools
Most New Yorkers are familiar with velvet ropes, the ones that can keep hopeful clubgoers waiting for hours to be admitted — and that, for the rich and the beautiful, are whisked aside.
But while we expect exclusivity in private life in New York City, it is startling to see the same phenomenon at work in our most public institution, the public-school system. With admission to gifted and talented schools now in process, thousands of New York City families have their noses pressed against the glass of public establishments their children are not able to enter.
And that curious feeling of being kept out doesn't stop with just a handful of our schools. Between formally selective admissions policies and economically restrictive enrollment zones, many schools are effectively off-limits, particularly to our low-income families — surrounded, as it were, by invisible velvet ropes.
A look at New York City's enrollment guides finds these velvet ropes everywhere, not just confined to the selective high schools like Stuyvesant that get almost all the attention.
In middle and high school, fully one in three seats are in schools with a selective admissions process. Let that sink in.
Most elementary schools admit students from a neighborhood enrollment zone, but these zones reflect the same dramatic inequalities of access as the housing market itself. As Senator Elizabeth Warren recently wrote, "Schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled 'public,' but parents have paid for tuition by purchasing a $175,000 home within a carefully selected school district."
(To see the private side of public education, just try changing the lines of an affluent school zone and listen to parents describe how much they spent to buy their way into the school zone.)
In the context of such a deeply stratified system, it's easier to judge the true role played by public charter schools, all of which admit their students by random lottery and without regard to academic record — except when, as ever more frequently happens, they request and receive an exemption to give preferences to students at risk of academic failure, such as students who are in foster care or who are behind academically.
As a result, and despite a lot of rhetoric to the contrary, most of it by the teachers unions and their paid-for front groups, charter schools serve a genuinely progressive function, providing disadvantaged families some of the city's best combinations of accessibility and quality.