Our ‘Got to Go’ list: Two parents take aim at the New York City public school system’s pervasive inequities

We’re parents of young kids, so you can imagine our initial outrage when we read about the Success Academy principal who kept a “Got to Go” list of difficult students. But now that we’ve heard the full story, what infuriates us even more than a temporarily rogue principal trying to push a small number of students out of a good school is a rogue system that pushes a huge number of students into bad schools for years.

The discipline model at the core of many high-performing charter schools is not for everyone, and it makes sense that some students and parents choose to leave. That, in itself, is not tragic — it’s choice. What’s truly heartbreaking, however, is what usually happens next for low-income parents: They are forced into their zoned district school based on where they live.

And because income and racial patterns in our city’s school zones correlate so strongly with school quality, only true and ubiquitous school choice will help lead to a system of diverse models of quality schools.

We’ve been lucky. Our kids have had great school choices. Now we’re working hard to ensure other kids get the same opportunities. Together, we’ve been fighting for quality school seats for over a decade. In doing so, we’ve come up with our own alternative “Got to Go” list:

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1. Underperforming schools: Got to go

With more than 1,700 schools across New York City, the lowest performing schools are concentrated primarily in three communities: Upper Manhattan, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn. Students who live in these neighborhoods are often stuck attending bad schools — be it because their families lack the financial means to move,or because they have less access and exposure to the kind of enrichment and academic preparation that helps students attend private or selective-entry public schools.

2. Restrictive school zones: Got to go

Because of racial and socioeconomic trends in housing, the most effective way to enshrine multi-generational poverty and prevent upward mobility is to lock students into schools based on narrow zones. In some zones, whether you live on the north or south side of a block is the difference between a good school and a bad one. Rich parents can move, poor parents are stuck. The Community Education Councils could choose to eliminate some of these zones, but those who benefit from the existing lines fight change at every opportunity.

3. Politicians who fight the will of parents: Got to go

Some politicians have seen the light and realized that they can’t logically proclaim themselves “pro-choice” for women but “anti-choice” for poor families. However, the majority of elected officials seem more committed to safeguarding their campaign contributions and endorsements than they are to listening to the voices of tens of thousands of families and voters stuck on charter school waitlists. They seem to believe more in a failed school ideology that perpetuates inequity than they do in the black and hispanic families like ours that are demanding true choice today. Our kids can’t wait.

4. Enrollment policies that leave quality seats unfilled: Got to go

All schools — district, charter and private — lose students each year, and these students in many cases are more challenging to educate than those they keep. And yet the best schools, including test-entry district schools and some charter schools, refuse to make those open seats available. Our organization, Democracy Builders, released a report earlier this year entitled “No Seat Left Behind.” We documented more than 2,500 seats at great schools in grades 3-8 that should be made available each year to students from charter waitlists. All public schools, charter or district, should “backfill” all seats available if they have a waitlist.

5. Perverse incentives for principals and teachers: Got to go

One of the biggest problems is that the mayor’s new school quality reports are incomprehensible to parents and don’t sufficiently weigh student academic growth. As a result, school leaders have every incentive to counsel out tough or low performing students. Under the old A-to-F system, which parents understood, 60% of a school’s grade was based on student academic growth, which made it clear to the family of a struggling young person how likely it would be that he or she might be able to catch up there. Student growth scores are far more indicative of a school’s actual performance than the “percent of students proficient” number the media always focuses on.

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We believe that all parents, rich or poor, deserve to choose the right school for their child. That should include the right to leave a school that isn’t a good fit, as well as the option to attend a different, high-quality school at all grade levels and all times of the year. So what’s really got to go is not the most difficult-to-teach students. It’s the underperforming schools, unfair policies and perverse incentives that limit school choice and keep our sons and daughters from reaching their true potential.

Lyles is the executive director of Democracy Builders, a Harlem-based advocacy organization that aims to increase parent choice for excellent schools. Dan Clark is a parent organizer with Democracy Builders and district leader in West Harlem.

This Op-Ed appeared on: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/lyles-clark-list-article-1.2423229