A System of Choice or A System of Control: Who has the Power in the New Haven Public Choice System?

Kate O’ Brien

Professor Mira Debs,

EDST 240: Cities, Suburbs and School Choice


A System of Choice or A System of Control:

Who has the Power in the New Haven Public Choice System?

“Now, as a nation, we don’t promise equal outcomes, but we were founded on the idea that everybody should have an equal opportunity to succeed. No matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, you can make it. That’s an essential promise of America. Where you start should not determine where you end up.”

– Barack Obama

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act prefaced this quote from President Obama. This Act, signed into law in 1974 declared that all school children are entitled to an equal educational opportunity without regard to race, color, sex, or national origin,” (Pérez, 2011). This increased choice was advocated for urban education reform and improving school quality (Fuller & Elmore, 1996). School choice ideology assumes that with the greater competition between schools through market pressures, students will have improved learning opportunities.  The types of schools available within the school choice program are magnet schools, neighborhood schools, inter-district schools and charter schools.

The Center for Education Reform described the school choice program as one that “include[d] parents who want and deserve the power to choose the best school for their child,”(Allen, 2012). The New Haven Public School Choice Program echoes this ethos in claiming, “There are no admission requirements, tests or prerequisites for our students. We serve special education students, English Language learners, talented and gifted students and everyone else who comes through the lottery to our schools. No student may be denied enrollment because of race, ethnicity or disability.” (The School Choice Process, 2016). Both the Center for Education Reform and The New Haven Public School Choice administrators see school choice as a right for families to make the best education decisions for their own children. The system is idealized to be set up equitably so students are not admitted based on current academic ability or race, ethnicity, or disability.

Although a fair and equitable choice system should have the objective to create the conditions for all parents to make informed decisions about where their children attend school (Cookson, 1994), one is forced to recognize that social class and parent education play a fundamental role in succeeding in the school choice process. When parental involvement in the school choice process is examined, parents of a lower social or education class or non-native English speakers, are at a disadvantage within the school choice process.

School choice has been described as “the illusion of opportunity without the reality,” (Orfield & Frankenberg 2013). The New Haven Public School Choice System is a complicated system for parents. Class field notes gathered by EDST 240: Cities, Suburbs and School students from School Choice Fairs at James Hillhouse High School, East Rock Magnet School and Wilbur Cross High School describe the parent confusion of the choice process. Most of the Yale students noted the “Application Assistance” booth was the busiest booth at the fair, which suggests that parents at the fair had more questions about the choice process, rather than about schools within the system. One Yalie overheard a confused parent at the Choice Application Assistance Table ask if this system was a lottery. The representative is reported to have rolled her eyes and replied with a “yes.” and add, “However, we no longer call it a ‘lottery’…the name changed to ‘school selection process,’” (AM, 2016). This incredibly brief interaction is a synopsis of a system that is not transparent to parents and one that administration is obviously weary of explaining to confused parents.

The choice system has been accused of acting as a form of class-based segregation. Madeline Pérez quotes research from Morse and Davenport’s 1990, School Choice: “The New Improved Sorting” in stating that each step of the admissions process “highlights the many points in which formal requirements, informal requirements, staff discretion, and/or student initiative affected the final result, typically to the detriment of equitable admissions,” (Pérez, 2011). Moore and Davenport quote critics of school choice process in referring to the choice model as the “new improved sorting machine” that “has become the new form of segregation,” (Moore & Davenport 1990).

 Families’ familiarity and comfort levels with navigating the school system are linked to class-based experiences, resources and support they received from their child’s current school (Pérez, 2011). For instance, the admissions process to the school choice program is a complex process that heavily depends on parent involvement.The admissions process is typically made up of 5 stages: recruitment and information gathering, applications, screening, selection of students offered placement and final student acceptance, (Moore & Davenport 1990).  Each of these stages is a moment in which capital and class intersect. As parent’s  influence in the school applications process is shaped by the social, cultural, and economic capital they have been provided or denied, (Pérez, 2011), this system is not an accessible nor transparent system for those of low social, cultural and economic capital. It was also noted that the choice system was developed on “middle class expectations, but applied to a system comprised primarily of working class and poor families of color,” (Pérez, 2011). This element of the system takes away the choice aspect, as it demands that parents have a thorough understanding of the system and in particular the application.

The actual school choice application is also thought to put parents of a lower social class at a disadvantage.  The New Haven Public School Choice Program application process (see appendix) is outlined in seven steps on the New Haven Public School Choice website, (The School Choice Process, 2016). It is worth noting that this application assumes that parents have an understanding of the schools and what the schools are expecting of them.  Step one reads: Identify your child’s interests and talents” yet there is no listed explanation as what a “child’s interests and talents” should look like, thus parents with no prior education experience are left with no guidance. The application also assumes that parents can “explore school options by attending Expos, Open Houses and Community Events.” This assumes that parents have access to transport, will not be working during these hours, have babysitting options for these times. The New Haven Public School Choice system also makes several references to a wait listing process and does so in a manner that assumes parents are familiar with the waitlist process. It simply states that parents will receive “a waitlist notification,” and if a seat opens up, they will be notified. This prompt may aggravate the confusing application. This application to enter the choice system is just one component of the overall process and it is a complex process in itself. The New Haven Public School Choice Program application is not an accessible or feasible process for many families.

Parents of  certain social classes (i.e. higher socioeconomic status, college educated, higher income) are much better equipped when it comes to approaching the school choice process. There are several books, articles and blogs dedicated to making the best school choice for a child. However, much of this advice is literature targeted at a very specific audience.  For example, newspapers stereotypically targeted at a middle class audience, The New York Times, The Guardian and TIME have printed several articles offering school choice advice over the past few years. Parents within a higher socioeconomic class are more inclined to read such articles. An example of one such article was written by Andrew Rotherham in 2o11. In his article, Rotherham states that TIME specifically asked him to write how he and his wife (both of whom work in education,) chose schools for their children. He claims that many of his colleagues had already asked his advice, as if he had some “secret education-analyst methodology,” (Rotherham, 2011). It would seem that there is a demand for these sorts of articles from  readers of these cultivated newspapers. I could not find such niche articles or school advice of the same calibre in tabloid newspapers that are stereotypically targeted at lower socioeconomic classes. There are little to no alternative articles that are made accessible to families of lower social classes, putting them at a disadvantage to their higher class counterparts,

Parents of a higher socioeconomic status may also be more likely to find loopholes in the choice system. The New Haven Independent published an article, “Parents learn Hooker School Admission Tricks,” (Bailey, 2009). The article describes how a Yale faculty member, Hong Zheng, educated herself on how to get their rejected child a seat in Hooker School, one of the most coveted middle schools in Connecticut. She discovered that when a spot opened up in the school, it was offered to the first parent who claimed it. Ms. Zheng then created a network of parents in Hooker to alert her to upcoming withdrawals of any current students. She also rented a second property on Prospect Street when she found out that her house on 107 Cottage Street lies outside the Hooker District. Ms. Zheng’s show a mother’s determination to get the best possible schooling for their child, but they also show an educated and wealthy parent’s attempts at securing this school. The comments section on this article show a parent population who see the injustice in this system claiming that “it’s about who you know [to get into schools]” and that “years of favoritism and poor judgments have led to this, and without a transparent system it will never improve.” Online comments are obviously not an accurate representation of the public opinion, yet these comments come from New Haven parents who see an injustice in the system their child is a part of. There was an evident lack of transparency within the New Haven school choice process in 2009.

 In her book, entitled “Social class differences in family-school relationships: The importance of cultural capital,” Annette Lareau claims “Middle class culture provides parents with more information about schooling and promotes social ties among parents in the school community. This furthers the interdependence between home and school. Working class culture, on the other hand, emphasizes kinship and promotes independence between the spheres of family life and schooling,” (Laureau, 1987). This approach is not realistic for so many of New Haven families who are not a part of this middle-class culture. Madeline Pérez echoed this sentiment as she reported on how parents at Gracie school, a wealthy New York City public high school assumed that all parents knew how to strategically navigate the system. In commenting on her apartment in the Upper East Side, one parent remarked “People who are considering moving into my building — they don’t know you and they will approach you in the elevator and ask about the schools. If you are smart — you ask! You ask the realtor, “How’s the school system?” Sometimes people pay much more for a house and it’s because they may have a better guarantee to the good schools…” (Pérez, 2011). There is a disconnect in mindset and understanding that people with different backgrounds may have different experiences navigating school choice. The very nature of being of a middle class (or higher) status puts parents at an advantage in the school system by virtue of who they know. Parents of a lower class may not have access to the same social capital.

 Evidently a parent’s lack of understanding of the school choice process is a limiting factor for their children’s applications. In their book, “School Choice: The New Improved Sorting Machine,” Moore and Davenport report the study of public high school choice that found “Most families did not understand the complex process. The majority of the students either did not apply, or filled out forms with little understanding of how the process works or of strategies that can help improve their chances into schools they are interested in attending,” (Moore & Davenport, 1990). These children’s parents are uninformed and not educated as to how the system works, thus leaving the children unattended to navigate the school choice system alone.

 The dependence on a child to navigate this complicated system alone was reported from the 2016 New Haven School Choice Fair as many students were observed directing their parents through the hall and explaining the process to them. One particular family was observed having their 2nd grade son choose his school independently. The mother asked him which school was his favorite, and  asked him to rate his top four choices, so she would know when she had to “fill out the form,” (AC, 2016).  

The parent’s own education of the choice process plays a fundamental role in navigating the system and will substantially impact the chances of the child(ren) benefitting from the school choice process. There are clear barriers stopping non-native English speakers from getting the most out of the choice system. The Comité de Padres Latinos/Committee of Latin Parents (COPLA) was created in Carpinteria, California, 1985 in response to the struggle that Spanish-speaking parents faced in understanding the American education system. The organization ran (and continues to run) interactive workshops for Latino and Spanish speaking parents to discuss the obstacles they feel prevents them for advocating for better schooling for their children. The recurring named obstacles are, “We don’t have English… We don’t have transport… We’re afraid to go to schools by ourselves…” (Delgado-Gaitan, 2001).

The New Haven Choice program, like the Carpinteria School District is failing to adequately serve non-English speakers.  At the New Haven school choice fair that the EDST 240 Yale students attended, there was very little printed information leaflets available in languages other than English, despite the fact that 16.8% of New Haven’s population was Hispanic or Latino in 2014 (Census 2014). Yale students observed very few Spanish conversations between parents and administrators at the school fairs, despite hearing many families themselves conversing in Spanish. It was also noted that there was very little written information available in Spanish. There was one universal style flyer at every school stall,  which was adapted, to suit each school. In the center of the flyer was a place for a student photo in the middle surrounded by different bullet points: “How to know (named school) is Right for your Child”, “Unique Ways Your Child Can Grow and Learn Here,” the school logo, slogan, photos and contact information. The lack of literature in other languages available at the choice fair may deter non-English speakers from attending the fair in the first place. If what was observed at the fair was the extent of the information available to Spanish speaking families to make their school choice from, then the New Haven School Choice system is not doing enough to help non-English speaking families through the complicated process.

In their concluding comments Orfield and Frankenberg defiantly claim “Choice systems that ignore social stratification have failed because they fundamentally misconstrue both the choices the market provides and the ability of people in a very unequal society to make equal use of choice.” They warn that choice systems can intensify inequality. Madeline Pérez echoes this comment in her dissertation proclaiming a school will only “fulfill its espoused theory of ensuring choice and equity when educational administrators cease to operate a process that serves a majority of low-income people of color based solely on white middle-class assumptions and redesign appropriately.” However, despite this apparent inequality in the choice system in New Haven and nationally, there is hope on the horizon for the school choice program.                                                            

Different school choice programs across the nation have recently began adopting “weighted lotteries.” These programs work by assigning some applicants a preference based on “educational risk factors [such as income or English language learner status] or geography,” (Tegeler & Potter, 2016).  The Department of Education defines weighted lotteries as “lotteries that give preference to one set of students over another,” and in 2014, this department listed the formal conditions in which weighted lotteries can be used. One named condition was “To give slightly better chances for admission to all or a subset of educationally disadvantaged students if state law permits the use of such weighted lotteries,” (Baum, 2015).  The weighted lottery system ensures that the applications from children of families with little or no English and/or low socioeconomic status will be weighted in the choice process.

Implementing weighted lotteries into the school choice process offers a solution to the inequality within the application process. Weighted lotteries have been reported to ensure racial and socioeconomic diversity in many schools, such as Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn, Larchmont Charter School in LA and Citizens of the World also in LA (Tegeler & Potter, 2016).These lotteries are evidently ensuring that no child is left behind because of the race, education or socioeconomic status of their parent.   

 Efforts have been made online to make the process more accessible and less daunting for parents. In 2009,The Cities Suburbs & Schools Project at Trinity College created SmartChoices, a website listing all public school options for parents and students in the Hartford area, (the website ran from 2009-2014).  The website was created and made available in English and in Spanish. (Orfield & Frankenberg). Yet although this website did a good job of creating a space for the condensed information, just how accessible was this information to all parents? Jack Dougherty, one of website’s founders, highlighted that a website alone “cannot bridge the digital divide,” as not all parents have access to or understanding of the Internet. However, Dougherty et al also highlighted how this “digital divide” can be conquered. In providing a short time period of one on one support, Dougherty and his team saw that parents quickly understood the choice process and this understanding greatly influenced parents’ decision making in the choice process (Orfield & Frankenberg 2013). However, computers are available in most community libraries. Now the final piece to bridging the digital divide is providing technological workshops to help parents navigate online support, like the SmartChoices website.

Although non-native English speaking parents face a challenge in understanding and applying to the school choice system, there are programs in place that could potentially remove this barrier. The Comité de Padres Latinos/Committee of Latin Parents (COPLA) was created in Carpinteria, California, 1985 to provide a voice for the Latino community within schools (Delgado-Gaitan, 2001). The organization had an established voice in Carpinteria’s schools and community politics. Through continuous conversations with the schooling community, parents and school administrators transformed policies and practices for Spanish-speaking children. . COPLA has provided an example of Spanish-speaking families recognizing their rights and responsibilities in the school community and entering conversations with administrators to attempt to transform policies.

Non-English speaking families can also be assisted in the choice process through simply providing them with relevant school choice information in their native language. The SmartChoices Project conducted in Hartford within “The Cities Suburbs & Schools Project” at Trinity College found that an overwhelming two-thirds of a sample of  non native English speaking parents either clarified or changed their top-ranked school after receiving help and guidance in their preferred language (Orfield & Frankenberg 2013). When the information was not available to them in their native language, parents were not capable of making the best decisions for their own children.

The choice debate is set to continue to split the nation. Some believe the choice system will result in educational equity for all and some believe it will re-stratify the education system, further separating the rich from the poor. However understanding the process is a key aspect of succeeding within it and research suggests that parents are not being supported to understand the choice program. The system of school choice in New Haven has shown that it has a sorting and segregating function which can favor parents with the most time and capacity to engage with a complicated system. New Haven children are not being left behind as a result of not getting their first choice within the system but rather they are being left behind when they are not aware of how to make the choice within the system. These children and their families are the ones who slip through the cracks. Choice reform is complicated and its solutions may be expensive, but we will pay a far higher cost in ignoring its value or betting on the cheap. There are solutions to the inequity of the choice process, and they must be availed.

If the choice process is made more accessible to parents regardless of social class, language or education then as a nation we can embody President Obama’s words in that “Where you start should not determine where you end up. to ensure that none of our children slip through the cracks of the School Choice System.



Allen, J. (2012, May 29th). School Choice Programs. The New York      Times, pp. A22

AM, (2016) EDST 240: Cities, Suburbs & School Choice, Spring 2016 Field Notes at  James Hillhouse High School, East Rock Magnet   School and Wilbur Cross High School

Bailey, Melissa. “Parents Learn Hooker School Admission Tricks | New Haven Independent.” New Haven Independent. 16 June 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2016. Retrieved from <http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/parents_learn_hooker_school_admission_tricks/>.

Baum, L. (2015) State Laws on Weighted Lotteries and Enrollment Practices: Executive Summary. National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Census: High school graduate or higher, percent of persons age 25 years , 2010-2014. (n.d.). Retrieved April 18, 2016, from http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/EDU635214/09009

Cookson, P. W. (1994). School choice: The struggle for the soul of American education. Yale University Press.

Delgado-Gaitan, C. (2001). The power of community: Mobilizing for family and schooling. Rowman & Littlefield.

Fuller, B. F., & Elmore, R. (1996). Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions and the Unequal Effects of School Choice. Teachers College Press, 1234 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY 10027 (paperback: ISBN-0-8077-3537-X; clothbound: ISBN-0-8077-3538-8)..

Lareau, A. (1987). Social class differences in family-school relationships: The importance of cultural capital. Sociology of education, 73-85.

Moore, D. R. & Davenport, S. (1990). School Choice: The New Improved Sorting

  Machine. In W. L. Boyd & H. J. Walberg (Eds.). Choice in Education: Potential and Problems. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan Publishing.

Orfield, G., & Frankenberg, E. (2013). Educational delusions?: Why choice can deepen inequality and how to make schools fair. Univ of California Press.

Pérez, M. (2011). “Two Tales of One City: A Political Economy of the New York City Public High School Admissions Process.” PhD Dissertation, Department of Education, City University of New York, New York.

Rhodes, Anna and Stefanie DeLuca. 2014. “Residential Mobility and School Choice among Poor Families.” Pp. 137-66 in Choosing Homes, Choosing Schools, edited by K. Goyette and A. Lareau. New York: Russell Sage.

Rotherham, A. (2011, August 04). How to Pick a Good School. Time. Retrieved May 06, 2016, from http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2086809,00.html

Schneider, M., Teske, P., Marschall, M., Mintrom, M., & Roch, C. (1997). Institutional arrangements and the creation of social capital: The effects of public school choice. American Political Science Review, 91(01), 82-93.

Tegeler, P., & Potter, H. (2016). The voice of community development. Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://www.shelterforce.org/article/4288/charter_schools_gentrification_and_weighted_lotteries/

The School Choice Process. (2016). Retrieved April 23, 2016, from http://www.newhavenmagnetschools.com/index.php/whats-the-process/the-application-process

Weininger, Elliot.2014. “School and Neighborhood Choice: Sources of Information.” in Choosing Homes, Choosing Schools, edited by K. Goyette and A. Lareau. New York: Russell Sage.


New Haven Public School Choice Application

  1.    Identify your child’s interests and talents
  2.   Explore school options by attending Expos, Open Houses and Community Events
  3.   For K-8 schools, choose up to 4 Schools that best fit your child’s interests and educational needs. For grade 9-12, choose up to 5 schools and select the Academy of your neighborhood-zoned school. Use our School Choice Worksheet on our wrap-around cover.
  4.   Apply: complete the School Choice Placement online or paper application on or before March 13, 2016.
  5.    Receive Placement/Waitlist Notification: by email – April 12th: Mailed by April 15th
  6.   If placed, Accept/Decline placement by May 6th. If waitlisted, Choice Office will notify you if a seat becomes available.
  7.   Complete or confirm registration with Choice and Enrollment Office at 54 Meadow Street by May 6th.