out of bounds

How school choice differs for black and white families in New York City and other takeaways from a new report

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
New Heights Academy charter school in Washington Heights.

In New York City, a surprising number of elementary school students opt-out of their neighborhood schools — but who travels, where they go, and who stays put, is tangled in race, class, and gentrification.

Those are some of the findings in a report released Wednesday by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. For the first time, researchers used a decade of student- and school-level enrollment data to track where kindergartners go to school, and where they live.

The report challenges the argument that city schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. In fact, 40 percent of kindergartners last year did not go to the school they are zoned for, instead attending charter schools, gifted programs, other special programs, or just regular schools that aren’t assigned to their address. That’s up from 28 percent in the 2007-08 school year.

But the findings show that families experience that “explosion” of choice differently depending on whether they are black or white, middle-class or affluent.

Here’s what we learned from the report, “The Paradox of Choice: How school choice divides New York City elementary schools.”

The growth of choice might have made some schools more segregated.

One idea behind letting families choose schools beyond their neighborhood is that they might wind up sending their children to school with classmates from different backgrounds. Research is clear on the benefits of doing so: For the most part, all students benefit from being in classrooms that are economically and academically integrated.

But if New York City students were to stay put, schools would actually be slightly less segregated than they are today by some measures, according to the report. About 6,300 more kindergarten students would attend schools that are close to the citywide average in terms of student poverty. About 2,300 students would attend schools that the education department considers racially representative, meaning between 50 percent and 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic. (Some have criticized that metric, saying that schools within those ranges should still be considered segregated.)

The numbers are based on a big assumption: that parents would continue to live in the same neighborhoods and stay within the public school system if they lacked choice. In practice, not allowing school choice could drive some families, especially affluent ones, to choose to live elsewhere or enroll in private schools.

The theoretical impact of removing school choice is relatively small, compared to the 75,000 kindergarten students who started school in New York City last year. Still, the data shows that choice hardly adds diversity in a city where schools are deeply segregated.

“If you thought school choice was going to make things more integrated, think again,” said Clara Hemphill, one of the report’s authors. “It doesn’t make things more integrated. And in some neighborhoods, it makes things more segregated.”

Families aren’t just heading to the new school next door.

Nearly half of city schools admitted out-of zone students last year, compared with only 28 percent in 2007-08, according to the report. Much of that growth has come from an expansion of charter schools.

Many of the new school options that have emerged in the last decade have aimed to offer families choices within their neighborhoods. The city has added gifted programs in most districts and created unzoned schools that draw children from across their swath of the city. In the case of charter schools, new choices sometimes are located even within the school buildings that house zoned schools that children would otherwise attend.

But many families are traveling far afield to take advantage of choice. A third of kindergarten students who traveled did so across district lines, according to the report — often into higher-income neighborhoods, from Harlem to the Upper West Side; from Crown Heights to Fort Greene; or from southeast Queens to Bayside.

Families in gentrifying neighborhoods travel most – and, now, so do black students.

Recent studies have found that school choice increases the likelihood that a mostly black or Hispanic neighborhood would see an influx of wealthier residents — who can now move in with the knowledge that they don’t have to enroll in local schools.

Those findings are born out in the New York City report. Living in a gentrifying neighborhood was found to be “the largest predictor of choice,” with 60 percent of families choosing to send their kindergartner elsewhere.

Regardless of where they lived, black students were also among the most likely to travel outside their zone. About a third of all students who opt out of their local school are black, with 59 percent of black students choosing a different school — more than any other racial or ethnic group, and over 50 percent more often than they did a decade ago.

“Families of color are bearing this extraordinary burden of having to go through school choice and making the trek every morning to just find a better school,” said Nicole Mader, one of the report’s authors.  

The most affluent and poorest families tend to stay put.

The researchers found that some students are far less likely to opt out of their neighborhood school — and that their reasons likely differ.

In high income areas, more families stay in their zoned school — one that families might be spending heavily to be assigned to. “Zones provide families of means with exclusive access to the schools they like, while choice allows them to flee the ones they don’t,” the report says.

But students who qualify for free lunch — a common measure of family poverty — were 80 percent less likely to travel outside their school zone. Students who are still learning English as a new language were 73 percent less likely to leave. The report notes that “may reflect the high costs of choice to families,” which requires them to navigate opaque admissions systems without the advantages of social networks that more wealthy families can tap into.

The choices families make maps to who they are and where they live.

One argument in support of school choice is that it allows families to enroll in higher performing schools. The report found that often happens in New York City: Students tended to travel to schools where test scores are higher.

But even among families who choose, there were clear differences in the types of schools that parents prefered depending on where they live and their race.

White parents who live in gentrifying neighborhoods headed to schools that were less diverse. They enrolled their children in schools with 19 percent fewer poor students and 14 percent fewer black and Hispanic students than their zoned option. Black, Hispanic, and Asian families in gentrifying neighborhoods tend to enroll their children in schools with the same total proportion of students of color — but where students are less poor.

For black students, opting out often means enrolling in a charter school. The report found that 30 percent of black kindergarteners attended a charter school — compared with 13 percent of all students. White and Asian students, meanwhile, were more likely to travel to a gifted program.

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”