The Atlantic

The Privilege of School Choice

When given the chance, will wealthy parents ever choose to desegregate schools?
Source: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Last year, a contentious zone change in New York City forced well-off parents to decide whether or not to integrate a high-poverty school. The exact-same scenario had played out a half-century earlier during the city’s brief attempt at school desegregation.

On November 23, the morning after his home was drawn into a different school zone, Mark Gonsalves slipped out of his office in Midtown Manhattan and rode the subway to the Upper West Side. He met his wife outside a tan-brick building on West 61st Street. It was P.S. 191. Together, they entered the school’s library, a sparse room with butterfly stickers pasted to the wall and wooden shelves full of donated books. A promotional video was playing. It showed children of different races smiling as they made papier-mâché sculptures and visited a local museum. Gonsalves, who is an executive at a sportswear company, pulled out a pen and paper. The couple had come to size up the school.

It was not where they had dreamed of sending their youngest son, Justin. Seven years earlier, with their first child on the way, they had bought a co-op apartment around the corner from a school on West 70th Street, P.S. 199. In a district where most public-school students are poor, 199 is a bastion of privilege. Its parent association raffles off backstage Hamilton passes and weeklong ski-resort stays to augment the school’s budget. Its students, who are disproportionately white and Asian, score in the 97th percentile citywide on standardized tests. In fact, its success drew more parents to the neighborhood than the school could accommodate, so the city decided to shrink its borders. The proposal cut Gonsalves’ building out of 199’s zone. Suddenly, the path that he’d carefully plotted for his son from private preschool to elite public kindergarten was in jeopardy. He and his neighbors fought the plan. But, two days before Thanksgiving, the district education council approved it. Gonsalves’ family was now zoned for P.S. 191.

After the video ended, the school’s principal, Lauren Keville, introduced herself. Keville is 39 years old and has curly brown hair that falls past her shoulders. When speaking to adult audiences, she has a polite, professional air. With children, she is effusive, complimenting their outfits in the hallway and crouching beside their desks to talk face-to-face. When she was hired to take over P.S. 191 in 2014 she inherited its defining paradox: It is surrounded by wealth but weighed down by poverty. Luxury apartment towers with sweeping views of the Hudson River soar above the school, and a private tennis court, inaccessible to its students, sits beside it. The tower-dwellers don’t send their children to 191. Instead, most of its students come from the Amsterdam Houses, a low-income project across the street. Last year, just over 86 percent of the school’s students were black or Hispanic, and 82 percent were poor. (At P.S. 199, 15 percent of students were black or Hispanic, and 7 percent were poor.) The zone change offered 191 a reprieve from its overwhelming poverty—but only if the rezoned parents gave it a chance.

“We are doing a lot of exciting things at our school,” Keville said to the handful of parents who, along with the Gonsalveses, had come for a tour. “We’re excited to open our doors and share that with you.” Over the next 35 minutes she described the new math and reading curriculums she’d introduced, arts grants her staff had won, and Mandarin classes she was planning. Gonsalves, who is pink-hued and bald, took notes and snapped photos on his phone. Then Keville led the parents on a tour. In a first-grade classroom, the students waved colorful paper turkeys for Keville to admire. “You’re such happy first-graders!” she said.

After the tour, Gonsalves lingered on the sidewalk outside the school. “I don’t know,” he said. He wasn’t convinced it had all the resources he wanted. And even though he’d been zoned for it, he had other options: He could apply to different schools, or move. “We’re certainly looking at that,” he said. P.S. 191 needs parents like Gonsalves if it’s ever going to end its damaging racial and socioeconomic isolation—yet they don’t need it. It’s a conundrum facing schools across the country: How can you persuade parents with other options to choose integration?

President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have a simple plan to make education great again: Give parents more choice. Trump released a budget outline in March that’s intended to expand the number of charter schools, pay for some students to attend private schools, and redirect federal funds to follow students to the public schools they select. But even if Congress goes along with Trump’s plan, privileged parents will still have the most school options—a fact that isn’t great for poor families.

The main way well-off families choose schools is by choosing where to live. Increasingly, they’re settling in districts where most children look like theirs. “Rich districts are being created, and leaving middle-to-poor districts behind,” said Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, citing research she conducted with Sean Reardon of Stanford University and Christopher

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