Insider: What Philly Mag’s Awful Cover Reveals About School “Choice”

Forbriger: Those with means have always had school choice.
School District of Philadelphia

Photo by Jeff Fusco

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider. Check Citified next week for a different take from at-large City Council candidate Helen Gym.)

My first reaction to the cover of Philly Mag’s new issue was, wow, they can’t be serious. But that reaction was followed by the realization that the photo ironically represents an unfortunate reality: in Philadelphia, the ability to choose a school for your child – the topic of the issue – too often belongs to those who can afford it, a whiter and wealthier population than the city as a whole.

As the articles show, the school choice process in Philadelphia is really complicated, even for those with the resources to navigate it. There’s a myth that increased options are THE problem; the variety of schools of different types with separate applications have made it too complicated for families. The common refrain goes, “Why can’t we just make all neighborhood schools great? Then we wouldn’t have to worry about navigating choices, applications and deadlines!”

That argument ignores this fact: those with the ability to buy it have always had and taken advantage of school choice. By buying a home in a different school district or paying for a private education, middle and upper-income families like mine have exercised school choice for decades. Today, even in neighborhoods with the strongest neighborhood schools, many families are choosing another public option. For example, according to the most recent data available, less than two-thirds of public school students living in the top-performing Greenfield Elementary neighborhood catchment attend the school, while the other 36 percent are choosing a charter, magnet or transferring to another neighborhood school. And I would bet that a very significant number of families in this Center City neighborhood are choosing a private school.

While charter schools and income-based scholarships have provided more families with high quality school options, educational choice is far from a level playing field. Let’s take a look at who really gets to choose schools of different types in the city:

  1. Magnet schools: All of the District’s highest-performing high schools have admissions requirements based on test scores, grades and attendance records. Families who attend the city’s best middle and elementary schools with strong test scores get these spots; the major feeder schools for Masterman are located in Center City and the school is 41% white (the District as a whole is about 14% white). As more and more white, middle class families choose city public schools, we should look to the story of New York’s elite magnets as a cautionary tale.
  2. Neighborhood schools: The top spots go to people who can afford the premium to buy a home that guarantees enrollment in a high-performing neighborhood school. Sometimes, this means paying as much as $100,000 more for a spot at a top neighborhood school (see home listings in Queen Village, which list admission into the Meredith School as a top selling point). Alternatively, families can follow the suggestions of Philly Mag and “open your wallet” or “hit up your boss” to raise funds; yet another pathway available only to those with means.
  3. Private schools: While financial aid is available, wealthier Philadelphians usually get these spots. The annual price of admission ranges from a couple thousand dollars to tens of thousands. (Income-based school vouchers, scholarships, and Catholic schools dedicated to serving low-income families are creating more exceptions to this rule.)
  4. Charters: As we know, not all charters are created equal and this certainly applies to admissions. Navigating options is complicated, even if that’s not always by intention, so the advantage still goes to those with the ability (transportation, access to a computer, time off from work during the day, etc.) to visit schools and complete endless applications. It’s important to note that the lottery-based system used by charters has benefited thousands of low-income families who previously lacked options, and Renaissance charters are open to all students in their neighborhood.

How do we fix this? Correcting for deep inequity inherently means taking advantage away from those who have it by giving more advantage to those who don’t. In the case of school selection, middle and upper class families – with a plethora of options and the savvy to navigate a complicated system – will have to lose some of their advantage to create a truly equitable system. It’s not a coincidence that the loudest opposition to new schools and increased options tends to come from those who already have their children in good schools. The great irony is that the same progressives who advocate for equal access to marriage, equal access to a living wage, equal access to health insurance, and equal access to college with financial aid, oppose or fall completely silent when it comes to equal access to quality K-12 schools. The pervasive belief seems to be that rather than expanding options and access, families who can’t buy choices should just wait for their own neighborhood schools to improve… while those with privilege opt-out of attending their own neighborhood school.

I’m not sure if our leaders have the political will to do what’s right. Are they willing to create more high-quality public options for low-income families amidst opposition from the privileged and political elite? Are they willing to make the odds of admission into Masterman just as easy for a child from North Philly as one from Center City? Are they willing to dismantle a system of neighborhood schools that ties public school enrollment to housing prices and segregates schools based on income?

Philly Mag’s controversial cover photo, while evidently a mistake, seems to be a shout-out to the white families who are making the choice to stay in the city and enroll their kids at a great public, charter or private school. There are many reasons to applaud this choice, but the more important, often ignored point is that having that choice is a privilege in the current system. Our challenge now is to create a system of great schools where every family has equal access to choices, regardless of race or income.

Kristen Forbriger is public affairs director at the Philadelphia School Partnership and executive committee member of PhillyCORE Leaders. The opinions in this column are solely those of the author. Follow her on Twitter@kforbriger, or reach her by email at kforbriger@gmail.com