There Is No Good Answer to the Problem of New York Public Schools


It would be hard to take a look at New York City’s public schools and think they’re anything but broken. On the whole, the city’s public school system is the most segregated in the country, with over 50 percent of the city’s school districts—including “every district in the Bronx and two-thirds of the districts in Brooklyn“—containing less than 10 percent white students. Beyond that, there’s enormous disparities even from zone to zone in our city’s school districts, with neighboring schools frequently winding up at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to everything from test scores to money raised by the PTA to availability of after-school activities and in-school enrichment. The highest-achieving of the city’s schools have acceptance rates akin to Harvard, with the admission process to get into the most academically exclusive school being virtually impermeable to most of the city’s students. 

The problems facing our public schools—systemic segregation, economic inequality, the implicit privatization of public spaces, an imbalance in the allocation of resources—are the same issues that are facing our city as a whole; in short, the school system has become a microcosm for our society, for better and for worse. In the same way that New York of 2015 has improved in quantifiable ways—reduced crime rates, clean and safe public spaces, more green space—the city’s school system also has its bright spots, like the addition of Universal Pre-K and the expansion of after-school programs, as well as its multitude of true academic powerhouses. But just like the manner in which the city’s glittering wealth only throws its dimmer reality into stark relief, the highs of the school system stand in sharp contrast to the lows, which include things like middle schools where only 1 percent of children score as proficient on state exams, and high schools where graduation rates hover at 30 percent. In other words, if you want to see where this city’s rampant inequality starts, look no further than a comparison between a kindergarten class in a wealthy neighborhood and one in a low-income area.

Similarly to how New Yorkers have become accustomed to navigating the highly competitive, opportunistic world that is this city (i.e. the job market, the real estate market, the dating market), once children and schools enter the picture, this same ethos gets transferred to their approach to public schools. Basically, the parents who have the wherewithal to know that there are ways to both participate in and also benefit from the system do so in a variety of ways, including moving to the most competitive school zones, tutoring four-year-olds in an attempt to win a spot in a Gifted and Talented program, and learning how to game the lottery system at magnet schools. And so it’s the families that don’t know how to play the game—or even that there is, in fact, a game being played—who wind up in lower-performing schools, where their children will have smaller and smaller chances to succeed as they move through a system which works cumulatively, with dwindling positive prospects if there’s not a strong enough foundation.

And because the public school system here has become such a zero-sum game, with fewer and fewer examples of middle ground, parents who are used to only pursuing the best would never for a moment consider—or even care—that by accepting only “the best” for their kids, they might be tacitly agreeing to thousands of other kids being forced to accept the short end of the stick. But with more and more children than ever before entering an already space-strained school system, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for access to the most competitive, sought-after schools. Suddenly, the type of parent who would never think of accepting anything but the best for their kids are being told they’ve been denied their first, second, and even third choices. And thus, an increase in news stories about the now commonplace flare-ups at city Community Board meetings wherein parents are enraged at even the suggestion that their children attend a school other than the one which the parents intended for them. For many ultra-privileged New Yorkers then, the problems of our public schools has gone from being something with which other people have had to deal to a new and troubling personal reality.

In the latest issue of Harpers, essayist Rebecca Solnit writes about an experience she had several years ago, during which she, while giving a talk on Virginia Woolf, she faced a line of questioning revolving around Woolf’s decision not to have children. Solnit was troubled because she thought that “fundamentally, the question assumed that there was only one proper way for a woman to live.” The resulting intractability of the solution to this question was, Solnit realizes, due to the fact that “there is no good answer to being a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.”

It was this last bit that’s really stuck with me (and not just me, of course; Jia Tolentino wrote about Solnit on Jezebel, and said that she’d “like to inscribe that last sentence in tiny Wingdings around the ring finger of my left hand”), partly because it so succinctly describes the specific problem with which Solnit is grappling, but also because it’s such an apt way of addressing so many of the systemic problems that exist in our society, the quandaries that seem unsolvable, the many well-established but inherently unfair practices that seem too difficult to rebel against, and so they continue on, unchallenged—in other words, the problem of institutionalized sexism is not so far from the problem of institutionalized inequality in our public schools.

And in much the same way that there is no good answer to the problem of being a woman, there is no good answer to what to do with our public schools. Many people—particularly wealthy and white people—have chosen to ignore the question entirely, and instead move away from it rather than be forced to address it. Others spend their time shouting at Community Board meetings about how unfair it is that they spent millions of dollars on apartments in certain school districts only to be forced to send their kids to schools they feel are subpar. Most everyone, though, is addressing the problem in the depressing and ineffective binary in which it has always existed, that there’s a good and bad way for schools to be, that separate might be inherently unequal, but as long as there’s some chance of benefitting from the existing power structure, it’s worth participating in.

But almost nobody is doing what Solnit is talking about, namely, refusing to accept the fact that the reason there is no good answer to the problem with our public schools is that the existing system is the problem, as is our participation in it. But dismantling something as deeply rooted as the public school system, from which too many privileged people* still benefit to want to take it apart completely, will take monumental effort of a type rarely seen, and seems less and less likely to occur as the city’s rise in economic and social inequality continues apace, and the side-by-side existence of extreme haves and have-nots becomes the norm from birth to the grave.

*including, actually, me and my children, both of whom are in the public school system

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


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