New York High Schools: Equal for All?


This fall, New York City’s labyrinthine high school application process looms large in the minds of 80,000 eighth-grade students and their families, promising to shape their next four years and beyond. The application’s algorithm-driven “match” process, adopted in 2003, seeks to maximize student choice and access to schools in a manner that is unique, both in scope and complexity, in America. But critics of the system say its complicated nature nullifies its best intentions, and instead separates students based on racial and socioeconomic factors.

Fordham Law School hosted city and state education officials, school administrators, and legal scholars on November 1 to talk about the often tortuous application process. The event, “The NYC High School Application Process I: Examining Educational Access and Equity,” addressed diversity issues, major challenges for families, and potential for systemic reform.

Co-sponsored by Fordham Law’s Center on Race, Law and Justice and the Feerick Center for Social Justice, the conference featured four panels exploring various legal, educational, and familial aspects of the application process as well as a keynote speech from University of the District of Columbia Law Professor John C. Brittain, who served as one of the co-counsels on the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation case in Connecticut.

Through its Legal Economic and Educational Advancement Project, the Feerick Center has partnered with community-based organizations over the past five years to recruit, train, place, and support volunteers who help students and families navigate the high school admissions process. The Feerick Center also hosts a high school advisory committee that includes staff members from the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Student Enrollment, researchers, youth development experts, and education experts, and will be releasing a report on the process in the near future, Dean Matthew Diller noted in his opening remarks.

“We believe the high school admissions process offers a unique and extraordinary opportunity for innovation and reform,” said Dora Galacatos, executive director of the Feerick Center. With this opportunity comes systemic challenges, such as chronic school underfunding, that must be overcome, she added.

Twenty years after the Connecticut Supreme Court found in Sheff v. O’Neill that Hartford public schools violated the state’s constitutional standard for racial integration and equal educational opportunity, segregated schools are on the rise across the country and the fight against desegregation persists at all levels of education, Brittain noted in his speech. Brittain and Fordham Law Professor Robin A. Lenhardt, the faculty director of the Center on Race, Law and Justice, were among the authors of amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in both iterations of Fisher v. University of Texas, in which the court affirmed and then re-affirmed that the university’s race-conscious admissions program is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause.

Brittain opened his speech with a little known fact: New York City’s schools are among the most segregated in America, a surprising assertion he illustrated using clips from a recent “School Segregation” segment on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Racism remains a major hurdle to equal educational opportunity, noted Brittain before adding, “I believe the needle is moving forward like the arc of justice.”

Brittain expressed support for “controlled choice” admissions, such as those used in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Berkeley, California, which consider socioeconomic factors and familial school preference into an algorithm, in hopes of achieving diverse and integrated school systems.

While panelists who responded to Brittain’s speech acknowledged that New York City must continue to make strides on educational access, the prognosis was not all bad.

“The most pernicious way we have of allocating students to schools is geography. New York City should pat itself on the back for not doing that with respect to high school,” said Fordham Law School Professor Aaron Saiger, who teaches administrative law, regulation, and education law, and is writing a book titled Schooling in the Cloud (Oxford University Press).

Subsequent panels included an “Overview of the New York City High School Application Process,” “Challenges and Opportunities of the New York City High School Application Process,” and “Potential Strategies for Improvement of the New York City High School Application Process.”


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