When we began our class unit on school choice I had a very limited understand what that meant. We began reading about the placement of school district lines that exacerbate the problem of racially homogenous and failing schools. The Wells et al. piece “Both Sides Now” examined many benefits of racially integrated schools including “increased comfort and less fear” for both students of color and white students. Especially after reading about the disaster of failing schools in Ferguson, it seemed that forced integration of schools would be a step in the right direction. “Pushy white parents” would make sure the school’s administration was held accountable and it would be more difficult for them to mistreat or misinform minority parents (Robert Cotto).
These ideas were brought to the test in the case of Sheff vs. O’Neill. In 1989 an inner city Hartford student, Milo Sheff, brought a case against the state of Connecticut stating the inequality of the racial segregation urban and suburban schools. In the mid 90’s a decision was finally reached that required schools to work towards a 50/50 white/ minority student body. The result was the introduction of numerous new magnet schools as well as the open choice option that buses students out or into the city for a chance at a joining a public school in a different neighborhood. Without understanding the details of this program, I thought this seemed like a great idea for improving schools. Further, the themed magnet schools would allow students to find a school where their interests fit with the curriculum. However, after attending the school choice fair in Hartford and examining how a parent would actually go about choosing a school, my opinions on school choice changed completely.
When we got out of the van to enter the school choice fair I noticed a large banner hanging at the entrance of the school “#2 School in the state of Connecticut”. I immediately thought about all of the parents inside who would not be able to send their child to the #2 public school, or anywhere even close to that ranking. I’m sure they felt a little bit stressed entering that new and fancy looking school with the task of ensuring their child will receive a good education. As we entered the main room I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of booths and people in attendance. Where would I even start! I wandered between the elementary and middle school booths observing the milling parents. Some walked around holding the hands of young children, others seemed to be in attendance without their children. Some recruiters talked directly to the kids, wooing them with the ideas of 8 different types of dance classes and the chance to do scientific research on the Connecticut coast. Give away bags and trinkets were plentiful as were information packets many pages in length.
I began wandering up to booths that seemed less busy and asked the recruiters to tell me about their school. It seemed in a room of more than forty schools each had to work to differentiate themselves form the others. I was surprised to hear about so many programs and learning options I had never heard of, even thought I’d gone through high school and college myself. I heard about the shadow program where high school students could earn college credits from Trinity College, I learned about the advantages of flex block scheduling and even how one school will give each of their middle school students a $30 Mac Book Air that they can then purchase from the school for $50 at the end of high school. The photos on all of the booths and the front of my increasing pile of brochures displayed happy smiling kids participating in hands on activities. I felt a great sense of relief that I wouldn’t actually have to make a decision that would impact my child based on this experience.
As I continued wandering the fair I began to focus in on conversations about the lottery process since it still seemed so mysterious and confusing. I heard a recruiter comfort a nervous mother, “positive thinking, she’ll do fine!” and another Montessori recruiter talking to a set of parents who knew their chances of getting in were very slim “there’s still a chance!” However all of the conversations around the lottery seemed to be kept to a minimum, in a big room full of beautiful options it is easy to ignore the ugly truth.
That truth is the idea of magnet schools creating integration and fairness takes the burden from politicians and administrators and transfers it to parents, particularly the minority Hartford parents for whom the system was meant to help in the first place. In order to meet the Sheff case requirements, magnet schools must have a 25% non-minority population or else risk being marked as non-compliant. Since the majority of white suburban students are able to attend the well performing public schools in their more wealthy neighborhoods, urban and inner ring suburban minority students end up competing for spots in the magnet schools or risk being placed in their failing district schools. The magnet schools have had so many poor and middle class minority students applying that the “underrepresented” affluent outer ring suburbs (white) students are given priority in the lottery process in order for the school to meet their 25% quota. This means that a system meant to create education equality is blatantly giving the wealthy white students the upper hand in both the district and magnet school systems while the poor inner city students often remain in failing public schools. Yet now they have been given hope of incredible sounding magnet schools dangled in front of their faces with little chance of getting in. Depending on their age and home town, some of the students will have less than a 2% chance of getting into some of the magnet schools; a probability even lower than getting into Harvard or Yale. I thought of hopeful children and parents attending the school fair and how upset they must feel when they find out they will not be offered a place at the school where they had their hearts set on going.
Beyond luck, navigating the school choice system takes an incredible amount of time, effort and skill. Parents must either have the social capital to be told by friends and neighbors the best schools or they must be very skilled at digging through the mountain of data available on the internet to find the best schools. Making an informed decision would involve attending school choice fairs and many open houses, an option that is completely out of the question for many working parents, especially those that work two jobs or have non-traditional hours. This fact became especially concerning when I read the passage from Jack Dougherty’s book explaining the stressful process of moving to Hartford and trying to choose a place to live and a school district in less than four days due to time constraints (Dougherty, 2015). If he found this task difficult, a parent that is working even more and less educated this choice must be impossible. Even if the parents are able to attend the events it must be very difficult to find the crucial information about disability programs or free and reduced lunch when the recruiters would much rather talk about boats, college credits and Mac laptops.
After experiencing school choice in Hartford I realized the idea of choice and magnet schools is far from where we need to be in fixing the drastic inequalities in our education system.
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.