Thinking About School Choice Long Term

Yesterday, Kristen Graham of the Philadelphia Inquirer posted a story entitled “Study finds high school choice ‘an illusion’.”

There is a pretty vibrant (and in some cases heated and profane) debate about this article happening in the Philadelphia Speaks Forum.  I am evaluating elementary school options for my kids, and I wrote about my own anxiety around sticking with the School District of Philadelphia with regards to the uncertainty of what comes after elementary school.  Here is the two sentence summary of that post:  If my family moves to the suburbs, we have a prescribed school path that we know will provide excellent schools for my kids.  If my family selects an elementary school in Philadelphia, we will just have to go through the process again for high school, possibly even for middle school, with no certainty of being satisfied with the options.

Ultimately this article doesn’t change my thought process much.  I am definitely in favor of school improvement, who isn’t?  I am disturbed by the inequality inherent in the Philadelphia school system, but right now I am most occupied by the priorities of my family.  I am concerned that my children won’t be able to get into their preferred school choice.

Graham reports that overall, about 70 percent of district eighth graders apply for admission to a school other than their local high school, but only 45 percent of them end up attending the special schools.  I am neither an expert or activist one way or another on school choice.  But it strikes me that if 45 percent of students who apply end up in magnet or lottery schools, that’s a pretty good number.  I would have expected the number to be lower, that the magnet capacity would not be able to accommodate so many.  In my opinion, the existence of magnet schools specific implies that only the best students can go.  Citywide lottery schools offer an additional degree of choice, but they have to have limited enrollment as well, by definition.  My sense would be that if you create more seats in magnet and citywide lottery schools, by definition you reduce the quality of all schools because of budget and the limited supply of quality teachers.  I guess that I could be wrong about that.

I attended a tour of a Philadelphia elementary school earlier this week, one that is generally considered to be among the better neighborhood (not charter) public schools in the city.  In attendance on the tour was a 4th grade student and parent considering entry for 5th grade.  Over the course of the tour, I learned (overheard) that the student currently attends The Philadelphia School, one of the elite private schools in Center City.  I have no more direct knowledge of their situation, but filling in the blanks, I jumped to the conclusion that the student was not accepted to Masterman for 5th grade.  Of course there could be a hundred other reasons that the family was considering this public school (the student didn’t like Masterman, finances didn’t allow for more private education, the student has special needs?), but my imagination ran wild.  How could a student at one of the top private schools in the city not get into Masterman?  I’m not even considering city private schools–how can I expect my child to get into a magnet coming out of a public school, even if it is one of the best in the city?  So, in an ironic twist–I loved the school on the tour, but I left also feeling more anxious about Philadelphia public schools than I did before.

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