April 6, 2016

Can 'Controlled Choice' Help Integrate NYC Schools? 

By Clara Hemphill

“Controlled choice” as a way to ease racial and economic segregation in elementary schools is a current hot topic on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The idea, proposed by a group called District 3 Task Force for Education Equity and now up for consideration by education decision-makers, is to get rid of school attendance zones and assign children to schools according to a formula that takes into account parent preferences as well as family income.

The benefit is this: Everyone, regardless of address or income, would get a shot at some of the most popular elementary schools in a district that runs from 59th to 122nd Streets. Controlled choice puts a thumb on the scale for low-income children who, for example, want to attend an academically strong middle-class school.

But there is a crippling drawback: Controlled choice is, in essence, a form of rationing. By itself, it does nothing to improve the quality of schools—or to increase the number of schools that parents willingly send their children to.  

Yes, a few uptown parents would have the opportunity to send their children to a more distant, high-performing, popular school like PS 199 in a very expensive neighborhood on West 70th Street (if they were willing to have their children travel). But what would happen to PS 149, located in a more affordable neighborhood on West 117th Street? Teachers complain that PS 149 is a disorderly school. Student enrollment has shrunk from 476 in 2009 to 280 today. Fewer than one child in 10 meets State standards for reading. Parents who live across the street won’t send their children to PS 149 now; why would parents who live 40 blocks away consider it under a system of controlled choice? The Community Education Council for District 3, the elected parent body that determines zone lines, needs to understand this as it weighs the task force’s proposal.

“Controlled choice” was pioneered by Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1981. It’s been successful in ensuring that even the wealthiest schools there have a significant number of children who qualify for free lunch. But after 35 years, Cambridge still has a divided school system: a few schools are high-performing and oversubscribed, while others have lower test scores and struggle to fill their seats.

The good news is that it’s possible to transform struggling schools and to create terrific new ones. Indeed, a number of schools in Upper Manhattan have made great strides in recent years—and attracted a mix of working- and middle-class parents in the bargain. Under the leadership of principal Peter MacFarlane and his successor, Lana Fleming, PS 180 on West 120th Street saw its enrollment grow from 462 in 2006 to nearly 600 this year. PS 125 on 122nd street in neighboring District 5 is attracting parents hungry for progressive education in a neighborhood with mostly traditional schools. Further uptown, in District 6, two new schools, Castle Bridge School on West 169th Street and Dos Puentes Elementary School near 182nd Street, have dual-language classes that mix Spanish- and English-speakers—and help children become bilingual. (There are some popular District 3 charter schools as well. Because they are governed by State law and not the City Department of Education, however, charters are unlikely to be included in a system of controlled choice.)

What’s needed in District 3? Whatever it decides about zone lines, the Community Education Council, together with the district superintendent, must draw up plans to improve schools (or to close those deemed lost causes). In some cases more resources are necessary; in others, better leadership. Successful principals can bring order and discipline to a school; recruit energetic and competent staff; and replace the scripted, one-size-fits-all curriculum that low-performing schools tend to use with one that challenges all students. Because what’s clear is that while racial and economic integration is an important goal, without significant investments in improving schools it will be impossible to achieve.

Clara Hemphill is the founder and director of Insideschools, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs that for more than 10 years has been a respected independent source of information on New York City public schools. She is currently heading a two-year research project on income integration in the schools.