The surface idea of school choice possesses inherently good, intentions, seeming to offer hope to those who both need and deserve it. Its essential goal is to offer better school options to poor, minority students, who would otherwise be forced to attend their potentially failing neighborhood school. The first step in achieving this ultimate objective was the creation of charter and magnet schools, voluntary transfer programs under state and federal legislation, choice-based desegregation plans, transfer rights under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and voucher programs. One may worry that the creation of these new, magnet and charter schools along with the option to transfer to better, open choice schools would cause the further decline of the already failing, inner-city schools that the school choice system is helping underprivileged students avoid. However, in her piece “School Choice and School Productivity: Could School choice Be a Tide that Lifts All Boats”, Caroline M. Hoxby concludes that regular public schools boost their productivity levels when exposed to the competition that school choice provides. Thus, ideally, school choice provides all poor, minority, urban students the opportunity to attend a higher quality, racially-integrated school, and thus breaking down the racial segregation within schools created by a history of racially divided district lines.
When looking back at the RSCO (Regional School Choice Office) School Choice Fair in West Hartford, many aspects of my experience as a prospective parent were positive and highlights the seemingly beneficial qualities of school choice. I already felt overwhelmed as soon as I walked into the auditorium filled with school booths and representatives promoting their respective schools to prospective parents, but this feeling was not negative nor defeating in any way. In fact, I felt excited to explore and see what each school had to offer. I became enthralled in learning about each school, from what made them different, to what kind of education they valued and sought to instill in their students, to the different accommodations they provided their students and families. I found myself smiling and nodding as the representatives gave their spiels, really thinking about where I would want my child to end up, flipping through all the choices in my head. I started getting lost in the thrill of visiting these booths, greeted by smiling representatives that appeared to be so spirited and excited to promote their schools. Having introduced myself as a Wesleyan student doing research on school choice, I knew I was not getting the same treatment as the real parents who were shopping for schools. Some representatives rushed through their individual speeches, knowing I was not an actual candidate, saving their time and energy on someone who really mattered, but as I looked around, I saw parents just as excited, if not more, as I was. These school representatives really knew how to lure these parents in, making it seem not only as though their school was perfect for their child, but also that they themselves wanted their child at their school.
This excitement I experienced and saw other parents experiencing, however, is dangerous. It is no surprise that it was so easy to become enthralled in such a fair, in which the reality of school choice is hidden behind giveaways – such as the fancy pamphlets and customized hand sanitizers from the Expeditionary Learning Academy at Moylan – and professional, elaborate school boards adorned with photos of smiling students, favorable statistics, and bolded bullet points explaining what made each school unique, and thus, the best. Your head becomes filled with aspirations for your child that he or she can fulfill at this magnet school that promises to instill these values, or that magnet school that will teach your child these skills. The school choice fair appears as though it is your educational oyster, and it becomes easy to forget the reality of it all, the truth behind the school choice system.
Sheff v. O’Neill, crucial to the development of Hartford’s own school choice system, resulted in the court ruling that the state of Connecticut had an affirmative obligation to provide its school children with a substantially equal educational opportunity and that this constitutionally guaranteed right encompasses the access to a public education that is not substantially and materially impaired by racial and ethnic isolation. The Connecticut Supreme Court further concluded that school districting, based upon town and city boundary lines, is unconstitutional, and that such school districting by town lines played a key role in the high concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities in Hartford. Sheff v. O’Neill led to the rise of the current, voluntary, regional program consisting of 48 inter-district magnet schools that enroll around 17,000 students and 31 suburban school districts that accept 2,000 Hartford students as part of the open choice program (Debs, 2015: 9). Thus, as Mira Debs points out in her work, “With the rise of school choice has come the need to market all of these schools” (Debs, 2015: 4). The schools, in essence, need to sell themselves to parents and convince them to choose their schools in order to fulfill certain quotas required by the state. Debs points out, “The district and the regional school choice office market the choice program as being about finding the right ‘fit’ for your student…” (Debs, 2015: 15), yet not everyone is afforded this luxury of selecting a school simply because it is the right “fit” for his or her child. Less privileged families must take more logistical necessities into consideration, such as proximity to home, school security, and whether or not a school provides transportation to and from the school. For instance, if my assigned, hypothetical family, living in Zone 3 with no car, had a child that is more math and science inclined, the perfect fit could theoretically be the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, Math and Science Magnet School, right outside of Zone 3. However, assuming that both parents in my family are working parents, if the school that is the perfect fit for my child on paper does not offer any sort of transportation for my child, sending him or her there is not a feasible option. Moreover, these more privileged families have greater access to more knowledge and resources regarding school choice, allowing them to navigate the system more smoothly. The process is thus inherently unequal, as “socioeconomic background gives some families the material and cultural sources to better navigate the school choice process…[perpetuating] unequal education outcomes” (Debs, 2015: 4). At the RSCO School Choice Fair, I saw an auditorium room filled with prospective parents gaining access to all the information about the different magnet schools, but what about the thousands of other parents could not take time off from work to attend the fair or those that did not even know about the fair? The playing field for Hartford parents is therefore uneven, with some, many of whom I observed firsthand, having an advantage over most.
Furthermore, implementing Sheff v. O’Neill into the Hartford school system has turned into these schools needing to fulfill the state required numbers through the “controlled choice” system. With the illegalization of selecting students based on their individual race and the state requirement to meet a 25% non-minority threshold, the assumption that these non-minority students come from suburban areas has been made. Through the lottery, Hartford schools accept about 45% urban students and 55% suburban students. However, due to the increase in minority families moving out to inner-ring suburbs, discrediting the use of “suburban” as a proxy for non-minority, the lottery has become weighted to preference students applying from “unrepresented towns” that are generally affluent, white, and already have good school systems, in order to fulfill the 25% non-minority quota. These students, with access to great, neighborhood schools, really have no business in becoming involved in the lottery for this reason, but in doing so, they lessen the chances of gaining the opportunity to attend a magnet school for urban, minority students, who do not have a quality, fallback, neighborhood school. In consequence, the Hartford school choice system counters the original goals and ideals set by Sheff v. O’Neill and the school choice system as a whole. To make matters worse, in contrast to Hoxby’s conclusions, the Hartford school choice system, with the boost of magnet schools, has undermined the other, district schools that the state is still responsible for; students have been leaving these schools to attend the better, magnet schools, and the state, in turn, has ignored them.
Evidence proves that the school choice system is far from perfect, still seeming to privilege those who are already privileged. Perhaps the failures of school choice comes from the fact that its origins and history are inherently racist. It is important to consider the fact that school choice was first developed on a large scale as a strategy by uncooperative school districts to respond to the legal demand by black families for access to better schools provided only for white students (Orfield, 2013: 10). Choice was a strategy strongly linked to segregation, and freedom of choice became, in reality, the freedom to retain segregation, as southern leaders searched for ways to hold desegregation to a minimum (Orfield, 2013: 10). Thus, can a system with historically racist beginnings still be used today to mend the same problems? Gary Orfield notes that unrestricted choice or voucher systems are more likely to worsen than to remedy segregation and inequality because if the burden is put on the victims of segregation to change the situation and the involved institutions are absolved of any significant responsibility, very little to no change will take place (Orfield, 2013: 12). This, evidently, cannot be entirely applied to Hartford’s school choice system, which practices “controlled choice”, theoretically giving priority to disadvantaged families, although this can be debated, but there exists some truth to this idea of the danger that comes with putting the burden of changing the situation of segregation on the victims of such segregation. Those who need school choice the most – poor, minority, urban families – appear to still be at a disadvantage compared to the more privileged families. It is a family’s responsibility to attend the school choice fairs, find access to information regarding magnet schools and school choice, and have a good understanding of such a complex system. There lacks a fair and viable option for underprivileged kids who have underprivileged parents with fewer connections and less education. Further, even the underprivileged kids that do have access to such information are still subjected to the lottery and internal politics of schools needing to meet state issued numbers, and are thus still in danger of ending up at their failing, neighborhood school. In many cases, they do not have control over their situation and have to leave their fate in the hands of the lottery. It is called the school choice system, but the system, for many, seems to lack the element of choice. Part of the problem may be the fact that Hartford’s school choice system is trying to fix a racial problem so deep-rooted and historically engrained through meeting numbers. Perhaps paying more attention, on an individual level, to the make-up of each school population, rather than striving to blindly fulfill required quotas, and giving option of choice to those in actual need of such an opportunity, would be a step towards ameliorating the strong discrepancy between the promise of school choice and the reality of such a system. On the other hand, perhaps what is needed is more time – time for the system to realize its errors and find a solution and time for society to continue to progress and naturally break down its inherent, racial barriers. As of now, there is no perfect solution to rectify all the racial and socioeconomic problems within the public school system. School choice is by no means a complete disaster in this endeavor, it may possibly even be a step in the right direction, but it certainly is not the absolute answer.