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Opinion: Outraged over admissions policies at Harvard? Take a look at the public schools

Tim DeRoche | September 11, 2023

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Eamonn Fitzmaurice/LA School Report

Last week, I sat down and read the Supreme Court’s ruling in Students for Fair Admissions, the landmark case that overturned many affirmative action policies at the nation’s elite universities.

The case has generated significant outrage. The right was outraged that Harvard wants to use (and did use) race as a factor in its admissions decisions. The left is outraged that the court has now prohibited colleges from righting the wrongs of the past. And admissions officers are outraged that the justices have gotten all up in their business.

I, too, felt a bubbling anger as I read the decision — but for a different reason. It seems to me Harvard’s admissions policies just aren’t that important in the big picture. While all colleges must comply with the court’s ruling, the main impact will fall on highly selective universities, both private and public, affecting perhaps tens of thousands of students, all of whom (no matter their race) are well-positioned to become productive citizens and workers regardless.

But another type of admissions policy surely does deserve our attention as Americans, one that affects tens of millions of kids every year. And the stakes are much higher, for these unexamined policies often determine whether a child will have a realistic chance at success and leave school with the basic skills necessary to enter community college or succeed at an entry-level job.

What am I talking about? The selective admissions criteria of the top public elementary schools.

You might think public schools are open to everyone. Unfortunately, they’re not. I’ve spent the last five years looking at the admissions criteria and enrollment procedures for America’s top public elementary schools, and they operate under an archaic and discriminatory assignment system that sorts kids into schools based on government-drawn maps.

In theory, it’s supposed to ensure that kids get to attend the public school nearest their home. That’s often not the case, as powerful parents push for assignment to better public schools in wealthier parts of town.

More importantly, the policy empowers public elementary schools — under the cover of law — to turn children away because of where they live. The most coveted public schools have zones that cover the more expensive parts of town: those with large single-family homes on large lots. Then, because of the attendance zone, everybody bids up the real estate even further, inflating home prices by as much as $300,000. The inequalities of access then become insurmountable. The vast majority of American families are priced out of these homes, and out of these coveted schools.

In my old neighborhood in Los Angeles, living on one side of the street or the other can determine whether a child attends a public school with 75% reading proficiency or 16%. Of course, test scores aren’t everything, and I don’t believe any parent should rely solely on them when judging a school’s quality. But we should all be skeptical of someone who pays $300,000 so their kids can attend a specific public school and then turns around and argues the school isn’t actually any better than the one down the street. (This is the argument that I heard from some of my old neighbors when I suggested that the elite public elementary school in the neighborhood, Mount Washington Elementary, should be opened up to some of the working-class Hispanic families who live just blocks away.)

The great irony is that selectivity is built into Harvard’s mission and value proposition. For Harvard and other elite universities, it is a critical component of the educational experience that they offer — not to mention a key selling point — that less than 5% of applicants are offered a seat.

But that’s not how it’s supposed to work in the public schools. Being “open to all” is essential to their very nature. Many states have written it into their state constitutions. And Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, pledged that the public schools would have to be “available to all on equal terms.” Public schools betray their sacred mission when they implement selective, discriminatory enrollment policies that benefit the wealthy and powerful.

Tragically, public schools’ selective admissions criteria have not generated the outrage or judicial scrutiny that they deserve, despite the harm they’ve done to the nation’s children and the country. It’s time to end geography-based school assignments and all the other ways public elementary schools cherry-pick their students.

If you’re grasping for hope, look to the community college system in California. Once upon a time, this system was based on strict geographic assignment. But enrollment started declining in the 1970s and 1980s (much as it recently has in the K-12 system), and the state had to

consider major reforms. In 1987, the legislature finally ended the archaic geographic system with a law that created true open enrollment in the community colleges. Enrollment rebounded, and the community colleges are now regarded as one of the jewels of the state. The language of the law could serve as a model today:

“It is not in the best interests of the people of the State of California that attendance at a community college be restricted to a person’s district of residence. It is the intent of the Legislature in enacting this article to provide for the unrestricted enrollment and attendance of students at community colleges, thereby providing each resident of the state an equal opportunity to attend the community college of his or her choice.”

Someday, perhaps, our political leaders will have the courage to pass similar laws providing for true open enrollment in K-12 schools.

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