New DoE School Choice Rules Increase Parental Anxiety


Photo by urbanshoregirl via Flickr

The city’s long-awaited changes to the school variance procedure — for non-parents, that’s code for “who gets to pick which school their kids go to, and who has to go to whatever’s the closest” — are out, and parents are already starting to buzz about what it means for the increasingly fraught world of public school admissions. While the new system was first announced last week, two subsequent community info sessions in Manhattan and Brooklyn (the other three boroughs take their turn the next two weeks), as well as conversations with the Department of Education, have begun to fill in the details:

  • Principals will no longer have discretion to decide which kids to let in from outside their designated school zone. Instead, all parents will fill out a single form to apply to different programs, listing their five top choices.
  • Those listing a program first on their form will get first dibs, starting with kids who in a school’s designated zone, followed by those in the district, then those out of district. Only then will those who listed that school second get considered. As a result, notes, “If your zoned school has a popular pre-K program, you’ll probably want to list it first, because if you list it second, all the seats could be taken by other zoned children before you’re even considered.”
  • Siblings of pupils already at the school will get priority, but only within each grouping — so that any spots left over after taking zoned kids will go to siblings of out-of-zone students first, but if there aren’t enough left, little brother and sister are out of luck.
  • Getting a seat in a pre-K program will no longer guarantee you a slot in that school’s kindergarten. (This has never been city policy, but was de facto at many schools.) All kids will go back in the application pool for kindergarten, and start fresh with new preference forms.
  • The changes are set to go into effect for pre-K this year, and kindergarten applications for fall 2009. In announcing the new policy last week, schools chancellor Joel Klein said he hoped it would put an end to admissions processes that vary from school to school, “too often adding to the understandable anxiety of sending a child to school for the first time.”
  • If he was trying to allay parental anxiety, he doesn’t know New York City parents very well. Replacing a simple if haphazard procedure (“go talk to the principal”) with complex centralized paperwork may level the playing field, as the DoE says is the goal, but is only likely to throw parents into a tizzy of figuring out how to job the new system.
  • While the stated goal of the new rules is that “we don’t want schools to be choosing students, we want parents to be choosing schools,” as DoE spokesperson Andy Jacob puts it, the overall effect is likely to be to push kids into staying at their zoned school — especially the sibling rules, which could spook parents afraid that they’ll get one kid into an out-of-zone school, then be forced to shlep their younger kid to a different program every morning. (How this is supposed to mesh with the city’s new gifted and talented admissions policy, where eligible students will increasingly have to travel to programs elsewhere in their home district, is anyone’s guess.)
  • Likewise, forcing all parents to reapply for kindergarten may be more equitable — “if there’s a student who is attending a private pre-K program where there’s not an automatic path into a public school, it’s making sure that everyone has the same opportunity,” says Jacob — but making parents less anxious hardly seems a likely outcome.
  • Ultimately, the new variance rules reflect a tension between two city goals: The DoE wants to emphasize school choice, with a vision of parents as consumers shopping around for the best deal, but it has seen all too clearly that too much of a free market can lead to footloose parents making a mockery of the neighborhood school system.
  • “On the one hand, it’s a good thing” that the city wants to standardize policy, says director Pamela Wheaton. “On the other, they say they want principals to be CEOs in charge of their own schools, but this is taking that away from them. Some principals really love having the opportunity to take kids from outside the zone — it might bring them more ethnic or economic diversity, and that’s a good thing, I think. But were people abusing that? I don’t know.”
  • The fallout from the new system is still far from clear, but if there’s one given about New York City parents, it’s that they’re endlessly resourceful — there are probably parents who are game-theory experts already hard at work somewhere figuring out what the optimal strategy is for ranking your five choices based on where you most want your kids to go and how hard it is to get in. There could also be increased demand for Individualized Education Plans, which are guaranteed to all kids with special needs, and which will allow parents to evade the new application process, at least at the pre-K level.
  • And then there’s the one playing field that the DoE can do nothing to level: Parents really desperate to get their kids into a school can always just pick up and move into the zone — if they can afford it. If you thought Park Slope was expensive now, just you wait.