• Mon, Aug 19 2013

I Feel Guilty That My Daughter Won The Charter School Lottery

neighborhoodThe day after the charter school lottery, I sat waiting for my phone to ring. I had been too nervous about the results to attend the lottery the previous evening, so now I was waiting for the school to call and tell me whether my daughter had been chosen to attend the school.

I’d been hearing about the charter school since before I was even pregnant. From the day we moved to the neighborhood, friends told us we should try to get in. In a district that had long been failing, this school was a beacon, an inner-city star, the kind of school people write books about. Innovative and progressive, the school avoided grades for an emphasis on gardening, yet achieved higher test scores than any neighboring school. Everyone I knew who had a child there loved it.

There was just one problem: to get in, you had to win the school enrollment lottery. And according to everyone I talked to, it was really, really hard to win.

When my daughter was a toddler, I’d join in playground conversations about numbers and percentages. People said that hundreds of families applied for 20 or 30 spots. We joked about trying to get jobs as teachers or join the board, both of which sounded easier than getting lucky in the lottery.

It wasn’t until we wanted to buy a house in the neighborhood that I realized winning might be easier than I thought. In a way, the lottery was biased — in our favor.

The school is open to anyone who lives within the city limits, but preference is given to different zones. If you live in Zone One, you’re in the first round of the lottery. If there are still spots left after the first lottery, then a second drawing is held, from entrants who live in Zone Two. Any remaining spots are filled from Zone Three, which includes the rest of the city. But since the school is so popular, the spots are always filled after the first round of the lottery, and even in Zone One, many families don’t get in.

So when we decided to buy a house when our daughter was three, getting into Zone One was one of our top priorities. At the time, we were living in a lower-income but gentrifying neighborhood about a mile from the school. Our rent was cheap, and the neighborhood was poised to grow. We considered buying a house there, and we nearly put an offer on a very affordable house that was only a few blocks from the charter school. But even though the house was so close to the school, it wasn’t in Zone One — or even in Zone Two. It was in Zone Three, which meant if we lived there, our kids would have no chance at getting in. So we passed on that house and focused our search inside Zone One.

We quickly discovered that house prices dropped exactly where the charter school zone ended. That made sense. People were willing to pay more for even the chance that their kids could get into the school. But as I studied the map and compared it to houses for sale, I couldn’t help but wonder why the zones were drawn the way they were. One house just blocks from the school was in Zone Three; another nearly two miles away was in Zone One.

And as I visited the different neighborhoods, I noticed another split that also followed the zoning lines: a racial one.

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  • TwentiSomething Mom

    Wow, I totally get you. I live in Brooklyn and I currently live in an area where the public schools are failing and there have even been shoot outs during school hours within blocks of the schools. I know I want to get my son into a charter school when it is time for him to go, but since the chances are slim, I’d have to move to a more expensive neighborhood with a better school district which we can hopefully afford since we’re still renters.

    I can see your frustration because the children that come from low income, mostly minority homes are not able to get access to the same quality education that those whose parents own homes or can afford to live in a better district which continues to increase the achievement gap between those that are low income compared to middle or upper income families.

  • Evelyn

    Congratulations on your daughter getting a place at the school you really wanted her to attend. As someone whose eldest child didn’t get into our first choice of primary school … you have nothing to feel guilty for. You did what every parent does, you tried your best to give her what you see as the best for her. All the other parents were trying to do the same. Yes, you moved into house that would give you a better chance, but then many other parents did the same. You didn’t cheat on the school lottery. You bribed no-one, you blackmailed no-one, you didn’t run smear campaigns on other families to knock their kids out of the running, you didn’t swap your daughters name for a child who had won the place honestly. You had as much chance of getting in as anyone else who lives in the zone, and you made a concious decision to live there that other parents could also have made. If other parents can’t afford to live close to the school then you moving house or not applying would not have got them a place. Perhaps the school needs to keep a few places back for disadvantaged children, but you have done absolutely nothing wrong. My own parents disapprove of the grammar school system where kids take an exam in the last year of primary (10-11 year olds), and are sent to grammar schools if they pass or secondary mods if they fail. They still sent me to a grammar school because if you live in Kent their only other option was to send me to a secondary mod despite passing, and the grammar school was the one that offered me the best future. We do what we can for our kids and sometimes have to take the seemingly unfair chances for them.

    • Bran Chesterton

      The issue is that other parents don’t have the financial ability to get into that zone, and thus the cycle goes back the same it always has been. The richer you are, the better the education you can afford for your child. Seems fair in a capitalist society like ours, but take 2 steps back and you can see the horror of it. Punishing the child for the “sins” of the father (like not having enough money is a sin)… and condemning 7 year olds to lives of educational and professional failure, as well as poverty. It might not seem that dire, but the statistics all say it most definitely IS that dire, and from that young of an age. Access to good education is the biggest determining factor of success in life.

    • Evelyn

      I agree with that, but I think the change should come from the funding decisions that are applied to schools and the zoning decisions (like a place close to the school not being zone of the school and coincidentally being poorer) rather than the lucky parents either feeling guilty or opting out of the school that will give their child the best education and therefore best opportunities in the future. My family had a similar situation (although on IQ rather than postcode) when I went to secondary school (11 – 18) due to the grammar school system in Kent. Most of England got rid of it because of the unfairness years before I went there (25 years ago). While poorer families have a chance of a bright kid who passes the exam, obviously, pushy middle class families tend to have the resources to prepare their child for the test. You also, over generations, end up with a system where the smart parents who breed smart kids have all the opportunities. That means that when you sneer at those you consider beneath you and make decisions that keep them there you can feel that your smug superiority is somehow justified because you believe the poor to be inherently stupid as well as uneducated (which is obviously false as well as a dangerous attitude). Also, kids bloom at different ages and if your kid blooms after 11 then they can’t really use it as their school is geared up for different educational expectations. I hate that system and so does my mother (one of the lucky ones who passed despite being working class so clawed her way up to be rather middle class by the time I came along). My mum felt awful about sending me there but the alternative would have been squashing all my future opportunities for the sake of her principles by making me be the only kid to pass at the secondary mod (and as I was highest score in my year I would really have been out of place and educationally bored). Yes, systems that give great free education to well off families only suck, but making those parents feel wracked with guilt is not the answer.

    • Bran Chesterton

      I agree with most everything you are saying. I just took issue with the one thing you said in the first post, that “You had as much chance of getting in as anyone else who lives in the zone, and you made a concious decision to live there that other parents could also have made.” I don’t think anyone should have to feel guilty. Channeling that feeling of helplessness and frustration at the system into a more positive outcome, like being an advocate for schools of choice for all parents and especially the underserved, is a better way to deal with it than guilt, for sure. :)

    • Evelyn

      I am sorry, I hadn’t meant to be offensive and rereading what I wrote I can see that I did put that very badly. I do realise that for a lot of parents moving to a better catchment area isn’t financially possible.

      I personally think that funding and other assistance should be weighted a little more towards schools where the results are lower and the families attending are poorer particularly if inspections show that the results are related to resources in the school and the communities/families. If the US is anything like the UK then changes in boundaries are only a temporary solution as house prices are led by school catchment areas. If you just change the school an area feeds into soon the next generation can’t afford to live there and educate their children there and the new residents are the same wealthier families that live in the current zones. If you slant government funding towards schools that try hard but are in poorer communities then when the area improves with the school the funding will be with the next struggling area. Of course there are also problems with this approach, but then I don’t think perfection is ever possible with a complex system.

  • Rachel Sea

    Perhaps you can speak to the school board about redistricting. I don’t imagine they could afford a discrimination suit if other parents, who don’t get in and are not white, notice what you have.

  • G.E. Phillips

    I am in a similar situation. I’m a single mother supporting one child on a so-so salary (high compared to much of the country; relatively low compared to the cost of living in my area.) In the city where we currently live–where I also grew up–the average family makes over $88,000 a year and the average home costs nearly half a million dollars. And out of 160 school districts in the state, my city ranks #130. It’s an overall wealthy city, with a huge income disparity–mansions and projects are both commonplace here. Even the charter schools are some of the lowest ranking in the state. Meanwhile, we neighbor the town with the #1 school system in the state. It’s bizarre. Anyway, it’s the reason I’ll be moving before my son reaches kindergarten. The town I want to move has both significantly better schools AND a lower cost of living.

    • JLH1986

      Hearing this makes me so thankful I grew up in the mid-west. Near a decent sized city. The average family probably only make around $45k a year and the average house is probably $120k but most of our public schools are actually pretty decent schools and I know of none that are facing some of the things larger public schools in big cities are (cracked foundations, no books etc.) Parents still are paying more out of pocket than when I was in school, but overall the public schools are good schools.

    • Jessica

      I’m guessing you live in lower Fairfield County, CT. and Darien is your neighbor town.

    • G.E. Phillips

      Damn, you’re good. I live in Stamford. New Canaan is the town with the #1 schools, but Darien is top 5 for sure.

  • SDA

    In our area everyone in the county gets the same treatment in the lottery for any of the charter schools in the county. The only difference is if you have a sibling already attending. It seems like that would be the fair way to treat the situation across location v income lines.

    • Lisa Baker

      Yes, some of the charter schools in our area do this — the lottery is city-wide instead of inside a specific neighborhood — which seems more fair. But it makes it harder to build a close school community since the kids come from all over the city.

    • chickadee

      I suppose that you must then decide which is more important to you–maintaining a close school community that is predominantly white due to the property values of the zones, or having a fairer balance of student population.

    • Byron

      Isn’t the black population of the country something like 20% though? If the school has 18% black students, that’s I’d say within the limits of reasonable and a correct representation of the ratios of people in the real world.

      I assume that by fair you mean there should be 50-50 black and white students but that would only be balanced if the actual country was half black. Since it isn’t, that’d actually be an over-representation of black people so that’d not be balanced at all.

    • chickadee

      You assume incorrectly–by ‘fair’ I mean ‘reflective of the community’. The author notes that there is a lower-income neighborhood a block away from the school that was zone 3, which seemed odd. So if the neighborhood near the school has more minorities in it, which seemed to be the author’s point, then the school racial balance should ideally reflect the neighborhood demographic, not the nation’s demographic.

      Our district has an open policy which allows any student to attend any school regardless of neighborhood. We chose to send our daughter to a school with better academic opportunities than is offered by the wealthier school in our neighborhood (predominantly white); although the nation’s demographic has blacks at 18%, her school is nearly 50% black because of the neighborhood.

  • Katie L.

    This is an issue I struggle with as a teacher, especially since I am part of the problem (I teach at a highly in demand special program). I teach at the school because I believe in its philosophy and I love the passion my colleagues, students and families bring to our community. Yet I know there are many kids who are getting a subpar education simply because they don’t have the access. This issue is on the minds of our staff and we are actively looking for ways to fight this inequality. It is a long road though, because the system is not set up to help those who fall outside of its parameters.

    The district’s lottery policy is district-wide, meaning you don’t have to live in the “right” neighborhood to get in. In theory, this should mean that everyone has an equal chance. Except it doesn’t. Our schools with special programs are still way more white than the rest of the district. It’s a matter of accessibility. You have to have a parent that is able to research the school, visit the school and attend an info night (taking time off work or getting childcare), you have to have internet access to apply and you have to have believe in the power of a good education. If you come from a middle class background or are motivated to get your kid somewhere else then yes, this system works well. It does not, however, do anything to address the systemic inequality in our schools.

    All parents want the best for their kids. It just breaks my heart that we as a society don’t want that for all kids.

    • Lisa Baker

      Yes, this is definitely a big part of the issue for us too! There are some pockets of low-income housing inside zone one…but very few of the parents there have the resources/time/knowledge to go through the whole process of entering their kids in the lottery. It’s a lot of paperwork and meetings.

  • Bran Chesterton

    I am a first year teacher at a high performing, incredibly strict and awe-inspiring charter school in one of the poorest big cities in the nation. Our kids are almost 98% black, and like 94% qualify for free school lunch. The charter network to which our school belongs believes that all children deserve a great education, so it seeks out low performing districts and low income areas and then creates amazing opportunities there for kids who would otherwise have only a 10% chance of graduating from college.

    I honestly can’t even imagine a system or school or group of educators that would choose to work at a school that sets up in a predominantly underserved population and then preferentially serves white, affluent kids in that area over their lower income peers. That is really astounding to me. I don’t think I could be a part of it.

    • Lisa Baker

      Keep in mind that this school was built 12 years ago though…and back then there was no elementary school in the neighborhood. And the school population looked very different. It’s something that’s happened over time…

    • Byron

      According to the article, this happened because of the original involvement of those people. This segment of the article in specific shows that:

      “the zone lines were based on neighborhood involvement in the creation of the school”

      So yeah, if you “create” something, you get to define it. Then, 12 years later, if your creation makes your land worth a lot of money, you get to sell it and make money because you earned it through creating something of worth.

      The fact that in those years, lots of poor people moved nearby to homes of people who did NOT participate and that another, worse school was built to accomodate their needs doesn’t have to be something which makes you into a bad person. All you did was make an awesome school where there was nothing. The teachers and staff went to work in the first school existent in the area at a time where there weren’t nearly as many minorities living in the area from the sound of it. The fact that they moved in later shouldn’t be something that somehow turns those teachers into bad people.

      There’s no presupposed quota of inclusiveness or affordability to be met for a generally positive act to count as morally good. To act otherwise limits anything good to be recieved by people who need it most and treats good things recieved by ones posessing other good things as somehow lesser.

      No, a gold statue is equally valuable weather in the posession of a homeless person or a millionare. Teaching kids well, weather they be rich or poor, is overall a good thing for society. There’s more than enough Paris Hiltons out there, hell, a properly educated RICH person may actually help fund research, have hefty goals, advance humanity and stuff, you know. Devote his fortue to science rather than waste it on frivolous extravagant stuff.

      My point basically is that there’s power in wealth and that better educating wealthy individuals so that they can use their power of wealth to the betterment of humanity is something significant.

    • Bran Chesterton

      That’s not really my concern, honestly. The wealthy have the mobility and the choice to send their kids to all kinds of schools, move to all kinds of places, that already have great educational systems. The poor do not. Great education has to be brought to them or they won’t get it. And any child anywhere getting a bad education is not acceptable. You might think that’s an impossible standard, but it’s the only one I think is right. The wealthy are already getting well educated, on the whole. The achievement gap is huge, and real, and has an effect on our entire society – race and class influence everything, and certain races and classes never having the option to change their situation (class mobility is the worst it has ever been) means the same dependence on social welfare, the same crime rates, the same shit everyone bitches about all the time.

      So I get your point, and I definitely don’t mean to say anyone is a “bad person” in this (I do think it’s unfathomable that the board or whatever hasn’t changed these rules), but “educating the rich well is good for everyone too” kind of doesn’t do it for me, because it’s already happening and always will be.