From the beginning of his “Children First” initiative in 2002, Bloomberg framed his campaign for mayoral control as a civil-rights struggle, a sequel to Brown v. Board of Education. By standardizing policy—in curricula, testing, and now even kindergarten admissions—and liquidating the community school boards, he would cancel the advantages of parents with sharper elbows or shrewder navigation skills. Klein would be the mayor’s Great Equalizer, the “voice for the voiceless,” and school choice their means to bulldoze the playing field and close the racial achievement gap. In the view of one of the chancellor’s closer confidants, there is “no question that Joel talks much more about providing better choices for parents and kids in poor neighborhoods than about maintaining the quality in more-affluent neighborhoods. That’s been a much more important mission to him, as it should be.”
To a point, the mission worked, at least in some of the places some of the time. After surveying the scorched earth in East New York and the South Bronx, the chancellor flooded their zones with books and energetic young teachers. Middle schools still lagged and central Harlem stayed hopeless (except for its high-performing charters), but progress was undeniable. As Hemphill saw it, “Schools that were on the very, very bottom of the barrel moved up, from nobody knowing how to read to a third of the kids knowing how to read, and that meant something.”
But Klein was missing something on the other end of the spectrum. Not only were upper-middle-class parents sticking with public schools, but a richer city was creating a need for more schools in wealthier neighborhoods. By failing to keep up with this demand, the DOE eroded opportunity for poorer students as well. In the world of urban education, density trumps diversity. The more children per square city block, the tighter the zone and the more homogenous the school. Up until a few years ago, rich white neighborhood schools freely offered variances to families fleeing inner-city “dead zones.” But with in-zone demand swamping supply, the variance is now a relic of the past. At P.S. 199 on the Upper West Side, only 10 percent of the kindergartners were black or Latino last year; at P.S. 150, only 7 percent. Even the wealthiest Manhattan catchments include poor families, to be sure; 9 percent of the children at P.S. 6 are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. But for parents living beyond the gold coasts, Hemphill says, “school choice has pretty much evaporated.”
In some of the poorer districts in the outer boroughs, families are left with the worst of all worlds: underperforming zoned schools that have no room. The DOE perennially “caps” the enrollments of dozens of schools in the Bronx and Queens and Brooklyn, busing hundreds of kindergartners out of places like Elmhurst or Norwood. In the northwest corner of the Bronx, the poorest urban county in the nation, District 10 leads the city in capped schools—seven by the count of the DOE, nine by that of Marvin Shelton, the president of the district’s Community Education Council. (The crush can only worsen this fall, given the closure of kindergartens at city-run day-care centers: more than 3,000 of the city’s least-advantaged 5-year-olds, thrown into the DOE’s Mixmaster.) The children are bused miles east to west in rush-hour traffic and arrive home so exhausted they take two-hour naps. More than a dozen other schools dodge formal caps by shunting students to annexes blocks away or hauling makeshift “mini-schools” or double-wides onto their properties. At P.S. 46, in the Fordham-Bedford area, a hulking blue trailer was installed in the schoolyard in the late seventies. “It was supposed to be a temporary facility,” says Ronn Jordan, who graduated from the school in 1976 and now helps lead the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, “but temporary became permanent.”
When it is your child who’s affected, says Gaudy Valdez, a pocket of overcrowding feels more like a canyon. P.S. 8, in Bedford Park, is typical of these parts: 71 percent Latino, 78 percent free-lunch rate, 142 percent utilization rate. Though Valdez and her husband and their 6-year-old daughter, Hannah, live just down the block, the kindergartens are capped. So Hannah watches friends and neighbors file inside while she waits outside the door for her bus to P.S. 382, a ride of stress and daily drama. There are mornings in the cold or rain, and the bus is late, when she asks: “Can we just stay here today?” And her mother must reply: No, it isn’t your school. “We feel horrible about it,” Valdez said. Recently, P.S. 8 informed her that there might be no room for Hannah in first grade, either.