A letter to Tom Toch about high school choice

Hey Tom, I read your recent article in PDK lauding high school choice. You write that the example of NYC shows that high school choice can "harness the power of the marketplace to better serve students’ diverse educational interests and needs and to stimulate improvement through competition for students on a wide scale."

As a NYC parent, I can tell you that this is a highly idealized picture of what actually occurs. The high school admissions process is a nightmare for most parents (and students); even worse than the college admissions process. And your article has some egregious errors.
You write that that “By 2009, some 95% of students won places at one of their top five high schools, and city officials had to assign only 791 students to schools.”
Actually, there were about 7500 students in 2009 -- 16% of the total-- who didn’t get into any of their top twelve choices.

That’s thousands of kids who end up being forced to attend failing schools, and/or schools miles from their homes, and/or schools that specialize in areas that don’t interest them at all. Another 7,000 or so students are automatically assigned to high schools because they show up too late to apply.
As this New School report points out, many of our students are routinely assigned to vocational schools to study trades that they have no interest in pursuing, though they have to pass exams in these specialized areas to graduate.

You would also be amazed at how low the quality of many of our high schools. More than half of our students attend severely overcrowded schools, most of them sitting in classes of thirty or larger, thousands in trailers. Many students travel an hour or more each way to school. As a result, about 40 percent students who enter high school at grade level or near grade level fail to graduate after four years.

And some of the most overcrowded schools are the lowest performing, flooded with high-needs students no one wants, especially special ed and ELL students. Indeed, inequities have flourished under this system of “school choice”.
Moreover, under the current system it has become nearly impossible for students to transfer out of the high school to which they ’ve been assigned – even they identify another school where the principal is willing to take them . You have to be practically mugged first.

This is one of the reasons our dropout and discharge rates are so high . In fact, the discharge rate for students in their first year of high school has doubled under this system of high school "choice", though none of these students counted as dropouts.

You are lucky you don’t have a child who attends public high school in NYC. We would all rather live someplace where our kids could automatically attend a decent neighborhood high school.
Yours, Leonie Haimson, public school parent
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