By AG Moore
Hope in a Prison of Despair by Evely de Morgan
According to a May 8 New York Times article, education – not student processing – but true education, the kind that wealthy parents pay many thousands of dollars for, is a scarce resource in New York City. This thing that parents hold onto, as a promise for their children’s future, is meted out like food in a besieged fortress – because New York is a city under siege; it is encircled and oppressed by vested interests: racial politics; social stratification; economic hegemony.
The Times featured in its article a young student, Radcliffe Saddler, who is representative of thousands of other New York City middle school graduates. Radcliffe, like many of his peers, failed to get into a high school of his choice – though he had not applied to any of the specialized schools that require examination for entry and he had indicated a total of nine that he was inclined toward, city-wide. The Times article, well written and thorough, focuses on the byzantine, almost impenetrable nature of the bureaucracy which sifts through student applications and determines the educational trajectory of young hopefuls like Radcliffe. While the article clearly highlights deficiencies of the high school selection system, unexplored is the one question that is central to educational insufficiency in New York City – why is there any at all???
Why are students left standing, with unanswered petitions, outside the gates to knowledge? Why are these students deprived of a kind of nourishment which will alter the course of their lives, perhaps irrevocably?
Radcliffe Saddler weeps at the prospect of lost opportunity. How can the rest of us be at ease knowing why this child cries and knowing that it is in our power to prevent the injustice that he suffers.
There are students in New York City who get an excellent education in public schools. These students are the lucky few who, by dint of parental influence, guile, ambition and skill – or by dint of extraordinary talent – are selected to attend premier schools.
So much of what befalls each student in the selection process is predetermined, the New York Times article stresses. Not only socio-economic status, but neighborhood and borough are powerful influences. These factors will always favor the advantaged and disparage the less advantaged – always, that is, unless basic assumptions underlying public education are eschewed. Unless there is true open enrollment. Only then, when every child has the opportunity to go to any school, without prejudice, will there be an end to discriminatory disbursement of educational resources.
So long as neighborhoods remain racially and economically segregated, a neighborhood-based school system will inevitably reinforce the patterns of segregation. However, if all children, and all parents, could choose to send their children to the “best” school, then the “worst” schools would disappear – for who would choose to go to them? Right now, these failing schools are propped up artificially by an arcane structure that allots and distributes, like an indifferent god, the keys to children’s futures.
The United States has historically demonstrated an unshakable faith in “markets”, and New York City is the acknowledged center of free-market wheeling and dealing. What better place, then, to apply laissez faire principles than the public school system. Let the market rule and, as with any bartered commodity, worth will tell. Consumers of education, selecting freely, will decide which schools survive and which die.
But the operation of the free market in public education will never be, not without a virtual storming of that bureaucratic Bastille, the New York City Department of Education. Just as pre-revolution France supported and was supported by the pampered nobility, the current education system serves and is endorsed by the city’s elite. The children of New York’s plutocracy do not end up in the “worst” schools. Not only do the privileged know how to negotiate the maze of paper work and evaluation, but they also can afford to live in the best neighborhoods and provide their offspring with the finest early childhood enrichment programs. By the time the young from this privileged class apply to high school, they are geographically, intellectually and socially equipped to do well in the selection process.
So, the responsibility for change falls, as it always and inevitably does in a democracy, on the rest of us, on all who have a conscience – and an eye to the future. For, we must consider what will happen to Radcliffe Saddler, and other students, who end up in schools that nobody wants to attend. These students will be adults one day. They will be – and they are – the fabric of our nation. If we cheat them at the beginning of their lives, we cheat ourselves. We rob ourselves of their talents, their ambition, their undeveloped skills. And we become, by design, a nation defined by paucity and not by strength.