How Public Schools Cherry-Pick Their Students

7 minute read
DeRoche is the founder and president of Available to All, a nonpartisan watchdog defending equal access to public schools. He is also the author of A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools

In May 2022, an Arizona mom named Karrie got a heartbreaking message from the local public school: Her son Brayden wouldn’t be allowed to return as a second-grader in the fall. The reason? Brayden had been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and the school claimed that it didn’t have any more room for kids with disabilities.

“It felt like they were looking for a reason to dismiss him,” Karrie told me, “and make him somebody else’s problem.”

Karrie and her family had recently moved just outside of the boundary line for the Tanque Verde School District just outside of Tucson. In accordance with Arizona’s Open Enrollment law, Brayden’s old school actually accepts many students outside of that boundary line. But that law has a troubling loophole that allows districts to reject the applications of students with disabilities, no matter how minimal the services they require. So the district said that Brayden couldn’t come back.

“This experience has really turned me off of public education,” says Karrie. It’s a hard lesson that many American families have learned over the years: The public schools are not as inclusive as we typically assume them to be, and they often turn children away for arbitrary or discriminatory reasons, violating the foundational promise of common schools that are open to all children.

Writing almost 70 years ago this week, Chief Justice Earl Warren issued the court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, pledging that all public schools in the U.S. must be “available to all on equal terms.” But seven decades later, that promise remains unfulfilled.

Historically, the most coveted public schools in America use government-drawn maps to discriminate against students who live in “less desirable” parts of town. This type of geographic discrimination echoes the racist redlining policies of the early 20th century and allows many sought-after public schools to operate as quasi-private schools. The practice of “educational redlining” is one of the main reasons that a child’s zip code increasingly determines his or her fate in life.

Some of these coveted schools are protected by district boundary lines, like the Beverly Hills Unified School District in Southern California or the Grosse Pointe Public Schools just outside of Detroit. Others are protected by the boundaries of “attendance zones” or “catchment areas” drawn by bureaucrats at large urban districts. These maps determine who is—and who isn’t—eligible to attend coveted public schools. Look no further than Lincoln Elementary in Chicago, Ivanhoe Elementary in Los Angeles, P.S. 8 Robert Fulton in Brooklyn, Mary Lin Elementary in Atlanta, and many others.

Indeed, the shape of these school zones is often shockingly similar to the redlining maps drawn by the federal government nearly a century ago. And families are told—once again—that they aren’t eligible for valuable government services because they don’t live in the right part of town. Left out are the working-class families (disproportionately people of color and immigrants) who can’t afford the extra premium of $200,000 or more that people pay for a house within the coveted zone lines. This is often the real financial cost of a “free” public education.

Read More: How School Voucher Programs Hurt Students

As a result, it’s commonplace for Americans of all races and income levels to use a false address to get into a school that they aren’t zoned for. School districts then sometimes hire private eyes to spy on kids and even put parents in jail for crossing the lines.

But educational redlining is just one of the many ways that public schools try to cherry-pick their students. Connecticut, for example, built gleaming new magnet schools that were meant to end the racial divisions in the public schools. But most privileged students, who were predominantly white and Asian, already had access to high-performing schools (via educational redlining) and didn’t have an incentive to enroll in the new magnets. In order to get the racial mix that it wanted, Connecticut had to enforce a strict racial quota. Instead of enrolling African American kids—the group that the state was supposedly trying to help—the magnets ended up excluding them, despite hundreds of empty seats.

New York City has long harbored a dirty secret about public school enrollment. Alina Adams, an expert on admissions in the city’s public schools, says that cherry-picking students is common. “Anyone who tells you that a New York City public school waitlist follows a straight queue is lying,” she says, “either to you or to themselves.” A coveted school has the ability to pick which kids they want to serve by manipulating the waitlist queue, leaving everyone else scrambling for the scraps.

Charter schools have faced the most scrutiny for their admissions processes, and there is no doubt that some engage in cherry-picking. I’ve spoken to one former charter worker who discovered that the school’s enrollment director was turning away students who didn’t speak English very well. “She felt that those students would be harder to educate,” says the staffer. “But it’s a public school, and that’s against the law.”

She’s right: It is against the law. In most states, charter schools are held to a high legal standard of open access. They have to take all comers, and they’re required to hold a lottery if they have too many applicants. In addition, most charter schools are forbidden from discriminating against a child based on where they live. (The most common exception is zoned schools that convert to charter, which are most often required to continue operating the exclusionary zone.)

So when a charter school is found to be cherry-picking its students, there are consequences. Local ACLU chapters, including Southern California and Arizona, have published reports detailing how charter schools have either broken the law or violated its spirit. And many charters have altered their enrollment policies as a result.

But the rest of the public schools are held to a very low legal standard of access and face very little scrutiny of their enrollment practices. Yes, they are prohibited from excluding a child explicitly because of his or her race. But public school waitlists receive little attention, and school staff are often free to pick those families that they prefer. As in Arizona, many Open Enrollment laws have loopholes that allow school staff to turn kids away because they have a minor disability.

What’s more, magnet schools often use “socioeconomic status” as a proxy for race, giving wealthier students a better shot of admission in hopes that they can get their racial mix right. That’s the policy that Connecticut adopted after it was sued for racial discrimination. Its “solution” means that low-income students still face a disadvantage when they apply to the magnet schools. Similar policies have faced scrutiny in Indiana and Illinois.

It’s clear that our public education system is not “available to all on equal terms.” As a country, we desperately need to repair our social contract. One vital way to do that is to restore the promise of public education as a system of common schools that are truly open to all American children.

We need state laws that hold public schools to the highest standards of openness. We need district enrollment policies that are simple, fair, and transparent. These policies need to prevent local school staff from turning children away for arbitrary or discriminatory reasons. We also need the government, the media, and nonprofits to monitor the admissions and enrollment practices of the public schools. We need enforcement mechanisms that punish public schools for trying to cherry-pick their students.

It’s time we make good on Justice Warren’s promise.

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