Sunday, June 8, 2014

Neighborhood schools

I recently read a highly indignant, even condemnatory, article about a child who applied to her neighborhood school and was not accepted. The cause of the indignation? She was a twin and while she was not accepted, her sister made the cut.

Another case a few weeks ago concerned a child who lived a few yards from her desired school, on the same street, and who was turned down and allocated to another school several miles away which was not even on a public bus route. A third concerned a child who could see the neighborhood school from her upstairs bedroom window. but was assigned to a school some distance away in the opposite direction. Her parents had even bought the house so she could attend that school.

At a first glance, these cases seem outrageous. Yet on reflection, my sympathy lies with the schools rather than with the families. All three cases concerned public schools with more applicants for admission than they had places available, or, as they say in England, the schools were "over-subscribed".

English public schools have enrollment or catchment areas, "school zones", and they must accept anyone living in that catchment area up to their capacity. A full school, or likely to be full, must hold a strictly neutral lottery. In other words, being a sibling or living next door carries no more weight than someone who has just moved in five miles away but is still inside the zone. In an effort to be fair, or more likely to follow the law, the schools above carried out such lotteries, producing the entirely predictable results.

This is one of the negatives of "school choice" where parents ostensibly have choice and schools have lost any say in determining who attends. Surely all three cases above show that in some cases, some students who should have priority in admissions decisions.

I have heard of a New Zealand school which is so desirable that houses in its "zone" attract a half-million dollar premium. Nonetheless, the school is overfull and so its leadership attempted a few years ago to reduce the zone, especially as one or two neighboring schools had significant vacancies. The school was promptly sued by affected parents who had paid half a million dollars to live in the zone. The result? The school is even more overfull with no solution in sight.

I know that history shows us just how slippery this slope can be, and many ditsricts are accordingly still under desegregation mandates, but surely schools should have some say in determining who they admit.

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