Education Opinion

‘Controlled Choice’ Merits Consideration

By Walt Gardner — December 18, 2015 2 min read
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New York City is not only home of the nation’s largest school district but also the most segregated. In fact, schools there are more segregated than they were a decade ago. Faced with this reality, the New York City School Diversity Accountability Act was passed (“What Would It Take to Integrate Our Schools?” The New York Times, Dec. 15). It relies on controlled choice to integrate schools.

Under controlled choice, parents list the schools they want their children to attend in order of preference. A computer algorithm then uses their choices to engineer a diverse mix of students in each school. The mix can include socioeconomic, academic and geographic factors. This policy is already successfully used to integrate schools from Cambridge, Mass. to San Jose, Calif.

I know that controlled choice will not satisfy everyone. I can understand why. Parents make great sacrifices to buy a house or rent an apartment in a neighborhood known for its good schools. Realtors routinely cite the quality of neighborhood schools as a selling point. As a result, they feel cheated when the school their children go to is determined by the randomness of a computer. Even when white middle-class families move into neighborhoods with black and Hispanic less well-off families, they are reluctant to enroll their children in neighborhood schools already populated by poor black and Hispanic students (“School Segregation Persists in Gentrifying Neighborhoods, Maps Suggest,” The New York Times, Dec. 16).

Nevertheless, I believe controlled choice is fairer than redrawing enrollment lines to engineer desired outcomes (“Manhattan Rezoning Fight Involves a School Called ‘Persistently Dangerous,’”The New York Times, Oct. 27). That approach is arbitrary, allowing parents no choice at all, except sending their children to private or religious schools.

In an ideal world, all neighborhood schools would be so desirable that few parents would not want to enroll their children in them. But public schools in New York City and elsewhere range in quality from excellent to execrable. It’s why parental choice has grown in popularity, and why it will accelerate in the years ahead.

Calling parents who enroll their own children in private and religious schools hypocrites when they refuse to support the right of other parents without the financial means to do the same is easy to do. But ethicists remind us that “parents can advocate for their own kids while fighting for vulnerable children, and they can do both without dissonance” (“Our Choices for Schools, The New York Times, Apr. 26, 2014).

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.