New York City Has 1,800 Public Schools. Why Not Let Parents Pick?

Students can transfer out of 88 struggling schools, but many are trapped in merely mediocre ones.


At an elementary school in Manhattan.

At an elementary school in Manhattan. PHOTO: ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

New York

As the final bells of the academic year sounded in New York City’s public schools two weeks ago, thousands of students and parents were dreaming of a better education down the block. Through a citywide program called Public School Choice, parents can apply to move their children from a poorly performing school to a better one. But the city Education Department’s stringent policy means that many of these requests are rejected. Last year about 5,500 families applied, but the city approved transfers for only 3,500 students.

Soula Adam, a single mother in Astoria, Queens, knows the disappointment of the rest. For years she tried to help her son Harry escape what she felt were lackluster teachers at P.S. 70, the same neighborhood school that she had attended as a girl. “I liked P.S. 122 on Ditmars Boulevard,” she recalls, explaining that the school was more rigorous and only two miles away. But she knew the city’s transfer guidelines would never allow her son into P.S. 122. “If you’re not zoned,” she says, “you couldn’t get in.”

Harry tried to win a spot at a charter school through an open lottery, but his number wasn’t called. Eventually he earned a scholarship to Saint Demetrios Astoria, a Greek Orthodox school close to home. That private generosity opened the door for the Adams, but thousands of other public-school pupils remain stuck.

Transfers between New York City schools first became available in 2003, after the No Child Left Behind Act required districts nationwide to create options for students whose schools lagged behind federal standards for progress. For more than a decade, however, the Education Department permitted moves only for students with specific hardships, such as health issues or one-way commutes over 75 minutes. Former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein defended this restriction on transfers for the sake of choice. “The system doesn’t work that way,” he told the Observer in 2014. “By definition, some kids get better choices.”

But last year the city began allowing “guidance” transfers, available to students who are not “progressing or achieving academically or socially.” The update received favorable notice from school-choice advocates, but the kicker is in the fine print: Transfers are still open only to students in 5% of New York City’s schools—the 88 designated as “priority” because of perennially poor performance. But nonpriority schools can still be bad, with as few as a quarter of test-takers proficient in English and math. Students at these schools have no recourse to move out and up.

Consider a tale of two elementary schools: P.S. 173 (Fresh Meadows) and P.S. 187 ( Hudson Cliffs ), less than a mile apart in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Both are zoned schools with no admission criteria beyond place of residence, and yet the share of students passing state exams in 2016 was 30 percentage points higher at Hudson Cliffs. The only thing that stops a bright student at Fresh Meadows from attaining success up the street is the city’s red tape.

In the long term, the free flow of students enabled by a reformed transfer program would put pressure on underperforming schools, as students left and budgets tightened. Successful schools wouldn’t be burdened by the influx of newcomers, since New York’s funding algorithm allocates enough money each year to cover the marginal cost of each additional student.

Critics may say the way to fix a bad school isn’t to cut its funding. But why should fear of tight budgets hold back students who are ready to succeed? Moreover, many of the city’s specialized private schools that serve low-income students have delivered impressive results with as little as half the funding per student as traditional public schools.

New York pours most of its hope for academic mobility into the high-school admissions process, which lets students apply to any school in the city through a competitive application. But ninth grade is often too late for students who might have thrived with better primary education. A 2016 report by New York’s Independent Budget Office showed that regardless of individual scores, students from low-performing middle schools were much less likely to apply to top high schools. However bright they are, children in pitiful schools may develop low expectations that conform to their environments, long before they get a shot at an elite high school like Stuyvesant or Bronx Science.

The Education Department’s summer homework is simple: Revamp the city’s transfer standards. Come up with a plan to promote the new policy in every school’s guidance office. And then get out of the way.

Mr. Ukueberuwa is a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal.

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