“What grade is your child in?” That was the first question I was asked after looking at the vibrantly displayed poster boards advertising at least twenty-five different schools at the RSCO Fair on Saturday. And then it slipped out. I couldn’t help it, “my daughter is in the first grade. She’s especially interested in performing arts and we live in Zone 3. I work full time.”
Ok, I am going to be a mother for the next two hours – yes, I can do this.
After the initial introduction, representatives began promoting each of the many schools that fit my newly adopted lifestyle: free breakfast, early opening, after school programs, transportation, a focus on reading and a small teacher to student ratio. Was every school really as great as the last? Why were they so eager and nice, especially when I won’t even be paying to have my child attend the magnet school and the likelihood of my child being granted admission with the lottery is so slim to begin with? I couldn’t help but feel stressed. Every one of my peer “parents” smiled until he or she heard how many spots were available in each school’s class.
When I arrived at one table, a mother was speaking to the representative about class options for her two young sons, ages four and six. I introduced myself and she was incredibly forthcoming, sharing how nervous she was to trying to enter her children into the Hartford Magnet School lottery. Her final words before turning back to the school representative were “if only it did not exist.” Her heart was set on one school, on one program, on one future for her children; the younger of whom she is currently homeschooling for lack of a better option. This one mother’s experience, in addition to those of other parents in the cafeteria at Conard High School in West Hartford, demonstrated how extraordinary, yet how daunting, the school choice process truly is. There are so many options, yet in the end, so few to actually choose from since the system is ultimately the one that chooses.
School choice opportunities in Hartford are an extremely controversial topic, often linked to discussions surrounding race, housing, socioeconomic class and access to transportation. Does school choice advantage more students than it disadvantages? Are the lottery and school choice processes fair? How does education reform occur without giving some children great opportunities and others a limited chance for success? School choice is most often directly correlated with racially related housing options and educational discrimination. Low-income families, often minorities, are moving into poorer neighborhoods, which in turn have lower performing school districts. High-income families, often predominantly white, are moving into wealthier neighborhoods with higher performing school districts. Prior to receiving the answers to my questions and speaking to representatives and parents at the Fair itself, I never really saw the negative aspects of school choice.
However, now it is clear school choice has the potential to leave many behind. The lottery process is defined by luck. The anxiety and fear felt by parents at the Fair, and in general, is enhanced by sociological factors that determine where a child attends school, including preference, sibling attendance, income and proximity. As a supposed parent myself, I certainly sympathized with these concerns. When Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts (GHAA) suggested they had incredible music programs for my daughter, I immediately felt anxious. GHAA was my number one choice, but there were only so many spots, she did not have siblings or special learning requirements and if my hypothetical life did not include a car, it could be too far for me to become actively involved in the school given my demanding work schedule. Plus, what if the school was particularly homogeneous? In her piece entitled “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” Diane Ravitch speaks of how school choice was initially used in the 1950s and 1960s as a mechanism by which to racially segregate students. She writes, “These ‘schools of choice’ were also known as ‘segregation academies (2010: 114).’” In the past, Ravitch also suggests that, “unions opposed school choice, which they saw as a threat to public education and a step toward privatization (2010:117).” I could very well be a union mom!
But then, even with school choice being considered exclusionary, the present advantage of choice for some is better than no choice at all. Choice still holds out the potential, although not the promise, for an improved situation
In education, choice brings change. Without having to physically move, parents can now send their children to better schools. Greater competition exists within schools and between test results, encouraging districts to work harder with teachers and students to reach higher levels of success. Diane Ravitch even writes, “having chosen their schools, students would get a superior education, and the regular public schools would improve because of competition (2010:127).” With the right to choose, there comes more parent and student autonomy, in addition to parents’ greater predicted interest in the school. Caroline Hoxby, an Economics Professor at Stanford, has suggested school choice can encourage student participation. And with greater productivity in the classroom, there is an increased predictability of a particular student’s productivity later in life (2003). With school choice (despite its initial purpose), there are reduced town boundary lines, and with them, there is now also hope reduced white flight and greater diversification within schools. In some schools, like those of St. Louis, Missouri recently, this desegregation has proven to be well liked and productive for students (Hannah-Jones, 2014:11)(Wells et.al, 2009:200).
The American Constitution and the 1996 State Supreme Court case known as Sheff vs. O’Neill gave Connecticut families equal non-discriminatory access to acclaimed education opportunities. Should they really be denied that right? After speaking with that one single mother of two young children with limited previous opportunities, would she and other parents really choose not to participate in school choice? I think not.
Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “School Segregation: The Continuing Tragedy of Ferguson” Propublica http://www.propublica.org/article/ferguston-school-segregation.
Hoxby, Caroline Minter. 2003. “School Choice and School Productivity. Could School Choice be a tide that lifts all boats?” Pp. 287-342 in The Economics of School Choice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ravitch, Diane. 2010. “Choice The Story of an Idea” The Death and Life of the American School System Ch7,113-147. New York: Basic Books.
Wells, Amy Stuart, J.J. Holme, Anita Tijerina Revilla, and Awo Korantemaa Atanda. 2009. “Ch 6: Why it was worth it” Both sides now: the story of school desegregation’s graduates. Berkeley: University of California Press. R. 199-235.