The Perplexing Process of Getting Your Kid Into a 'Good' Public School

Is there any way to make the system more fair?

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they discuss Matthew Yglesias's recent Slate column about public schools. Part one of the discussion is below; part two is here.

I live in New York, which means that I can afford to live in New York, if only barely, and, like most, not as comfortably as I would like. Nevertheless, together, my wife and I do well by any reasonable standard, although because life here isn't reasonable, I will say we do okay. My parents did (and do) better, which in a different time would have rated me an American failure. Yet the bills are paid, the children arrive to school clean, clothed, and fed, and there's even enough for minor entertainments when a babysitter can be wrangled. Call me middle class. I have no right to complain, though I do, often and with rich feeling, as both hobby and a calling. As a liberal—as a human—I contend with some economic guilt, aware, when I turn the pages of my progressive monthlies, or when I leave my home and open myself to the city's streets, that others have it worse, that my prosperity comes to me via a tangled and unjust mixture of class, race, and institutional bias; roulette-worthy good fortune; and myriad other factors little related to my innate charm, handsome mug, and fantastic talents. I know I should do more for others.

Yet there are some things I do not believe I should be asked to do. I thought of this as I read a recent post by Matthew Yglesias at Slate. In "Public Schools should be for the Public," Yglesias argues that school zoning—the process by which public schools restrict access to the children of local residents—was a form of privatization of the public system:

One of the worst things about "public" schools in many American jurisdictions is that even though the facilities are financed by the public they're de facto the private property of local homeowners. In DC where I live, for example, all you have to do to get your kid into a relatively high-performing DCPS school is move to the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. Meanwhile if you're poor you're out of luck....You can call [these schools] "public" all you like, but if the only way to gain access to it is to first buy your way into an expensive neighborhood then there's nothing public about it. It's just owned collectively by the residents of the neighborhood.

This is, of course, a disingenuously obtuse way of looking at public and private property. Local residency requirements do not a landlord make, something I'm sure Yglesias knows. Or as one of the story's commenters put it: "The schools are no more private than any other government-owned resource; just because every citizen doesn't get equal benefit from, say, federally owned grazing land in Wyoming, doesn't make it private property." To push Yglesias's argument a bit further, under his definition I would not qualify as an "owner" of the quasi-private educational facilities in my neighborhood. I rent my apartment, which means I don't pay property taxes—I haven't bought in.

That's not to say that Yglesias's understanding of schools is altogether wrong. Most school funding—93 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—comes from state or local sources, the local part mostly property tax revenue. More expensive homes mean greater tax revenue, with better schools usually the result.

A 2012 Brookings Institution study found that in the 100 largest cities in the United States, housing costs were 2.4 times greater in areas close to a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring one. Such discrepancies, which don't even begin to reckon with racial segregation or the iniquitous ways funds and resources are distributed to individual schools, are shameful.

Where I take issue with Yglesias is his suggested remedy. In what he calls a "zoning-free Yglesiastopia," no weight would be given to local residency in school enrollment. Yglesiastopia must be a place with infinite resources, one in which the good schools are large enough for all, and where no allocation process whatsoever—financial, racial, ethnic, linguistic, or residential—need be implemented. Let students flock to the quality schools and the problems in our educational system will disappear. Hail Yglesiastopia!

My son attends first grade at the "zoned" public school a block away. A forbidding grey-brick hulk, it has the prison-like aspect of New York's aging public institutions, squat and looming and leavened only by a small side garden. It is safe and clean and cheery enough inside, though, its halls and classrooms brightly lit and freshly painted, decorated with student artwork and writing and public service posters favoring healthy food and frowning on bullies. There's a spacious concrete yard with a couple of basketball hoops and a fenced-in playground reserved for the kindergartners and pre-k children. Happily, the school zone from which it draws most of its population is diverse, with a student body almost evenly split between white and Hispanic students, and sizable numbers of African and Asian-American kids, too. It even has some economic diversity. Sixty nine percent of the student body is eligible for the free lunch program.

There are better schools around the city, some of them not far away, but still, it has earned the reputation of being one of the "good" ones, which means different things to different people, but which certainly reflects the quality of the staff, involvement of the parents, and the ability of the neighborhood's residents (not just owners) to raise money for the in-school necessaries no longer provided, in this benighted era, by the Department of Education or the state or the tax levies. My son's over-crowded 28-kid class has two assistant teachers, and more important, an experienced primary teacher, who's been at the school and in his classroom for years. There is music education, a fine after-school program, field trips, recess (not a given these days), and physical education.

Logically, because the school is "good" it has also become "popular," which, in part, accounts for my son's packed class, but also means that enrollment for children from out of the zone has become increasingly difficult. I was unable to find specific statistics on this, but anecdotally at least, most of the children in my son's class live in the neighborhood, or once did. (There's some complexity here, related to the enrollment of younger siblings into the school even after the family has moved out of the zone.) This exists not only at my son's zoned school but also throughout the district. (New York's schools are arrayed in large districts made up of smaller zones). Last year, of the district's 28 schools, only six made "offers"—the contemporary PR term for allowing children to enroll—to out-of-zone students. Three, all definitely of the "good" variety, have become so "popular" that a waiting list for in-zone students was necessary. So to Yglesias's point, my son goes to his school largely because I can afford to live in the neighborhood.

Let us all, even Yglesias, concede that fixing the problems of our public education system is not easy. Even if we lived in a world free from racism, political protectionism, bureaucratic incompetence, and the conservative desire for government small enough to "drown in the bathtub," these difficulties might prove intractable. The busing and desegregation of the 1970s, by most accounts, worked, and could again in this situation, by placing students from poor neighborhoods into my son's school. I would welcome that, assuming a place for my son remained. That's the part I shouldn't be asked to give up—a good education for my children. This, by the way, is something the school to a degree already provides. The zone boundaries include not only my gentrified and gentrifying neighborhood, but also the lower-income one to the south, which helps account for the agreeable economic and ethnic diversity of the student body.

But Yglesiastopia isn't desegregation: it's a free-for-all, one that no more guarantees access for poor students than does the current system. The system would be fairer in this single facet, but to what end? Economic segregation, which is what we're talking about, exists because there isn't enough to go around. And Yglesiastopia doesn't address that root problem—why there isn't high-quality education in poor neighborhoods.


Last Sunday felt like the first true day of spring in New York: the sun shining, the temperature peaking in the mid-60s, the earth dry, the trees in bloom. And so we—myself, my wife, Jean, and our daughters, Sasha and Sandy—walked up to Brooklyn's Prospect Park for a birthday party for one of Sasha's pre-K classmates. Balloons, PB&Js cut into the shape of hearts, a big kite, a cake—this had the feeling of a ritual, something we could look forward to next year, with only slight variations.

There was another ritual going on as well: Talking with other parents about where our kids are going to kindergarten in September. For those of you who are mercifully unfamiliar with the New York City school system, let me explain as best I can: It's a total fucking mess. There are bad schools and good schools and even better schools, and which one you get into depends on a vastly complicated formula that takes into account where you live, where you can convince the school system you live, what language(s) your kid speaks, how well your kid did on the Gifted & Talented exam, whether you can convince a school administrator that even though you live neither in the district or the zone that the school should admit your kid, and, above all, on pure random luck.

For example! Did you know that scoring high marks on the G&T does not actually guarantee your kid a spot in a G&T classroom? It's true, as we were told at the birthday party and, later, on a playdate in the spectacular Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Because so many kids score so highly, there's not enough space for them all, so the city uses a lottery system in the end. So it's entirely possible that your genius child will wind up in a classroom alongside the ungifted and untalented norms, learning the exact same curriculum he or she would have followed in a G&T classroom.

This feels like torture—and it certainly explains why many parents opt for private school (if they've got the money and the connections) or charter schools like Success Academy, which makes kids wear uniforms. (Seriously, that's what every parent I've talked to brings up first: the Success uniforms. Nobody knows anything else about the place, but they make kids wear uniforms!) The worst part about this is that a lot of the public schools, at least in the upscale or gentrified neighborhoods where these things are discussed, are not terrible.

Take P.S. 38, where Sasha was lucky enough last year to lottery into a Universal Pre-K slot. It's a pretty good school. Maybe not perfect, but for pre-K and kindergarten, it's just fine—and three blocks from where we live.

Of course, down the street from it is P.S. 261, which is slightly better but which we're not zoned for. And in the other direction is P.S. 133, with a coveted French-immersion program, and in a brand-new building to boot. And there's Shuang Wen, the famed Chinese bilingual school with great test scores in the Lower East Side. Now, we could have fought for a slot in any of these—could have applied and hoped to get lucky like we did last year, or brown-nosed administrators to let us in. But we didn't. And Sasha didn't take the G&T test, either—she was too scared to leave us and go off with strange teachers. So that option was out.

And so we did what no other parent I've met at these parties and playdates did: We applied to only one school—the school we knew we'd get into, because we're zoned for it. And we got in. No anxiety, no stress, no wondering and waiting for test results, no crossing our fingers and praying to non-existent deities for a school-lottery miracle. Instead, Sasha will go where she's been going all year, and seeing familiar faces (except for her friends who G&T'd out), and at home we'll try to teach her to read, and she'll probably turn out just fine. It's only kindergarten, you know.

Now, all I have to do is remember to actually fill out the registration forms...