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Chants of "school choice now" could again ring out through the halls at the Iowa Capitol when the Legislature convenes in January.

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Faraji and I walked the bright halls of P.S. 307, taking in the reptiles in the science room and the students learning piano during music class. The walls were papered with the precocious musings of elementary children. While touring the schools, Faraji later told me, he started feeling guilty about his instinct to keep Najya out of them. Were these children, he asked himself, worthy of any less than his own child? “These are kids who look like you,” he told me. “Kids like the ones you grew up with. I was being very selfish about it, thinking: I am going to get mine for my child, and that’s it. And I am ashamed of that.”

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An estimated 900 students, parents, and others attended a school choice rally at the Iowa Capitol in April 2017.
Nearly 20% of the 107 New Jersey districts accepting applications from out-of-district students under the school choice program are in Hunterdon County. They range from the state’s smallest elementary school, Stockton, to the county’s largest school, Hunterdon Central High.

 

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The chief technology officer of  sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like , ,  and .
But the decision felt more like a victory for the status quo. This rezoning did not occur because it was in the best interests of P.S. 307’s black and Latino children, but because it served the interests of the wealthy, white parents of Brooklyn Heights. P.S. 8 will only get whiter and more exclusive: The council failed to mention at the meeting that the plan would send future students from the only three Farragut buildings that had been zoned for P.S. 8 to P.S. 307, ultimately removing almost all the low-income students from P.S. 8 and turning it into one of the most affluent schools in the city. The Department of Education projects that within six years, P.S. 8 could be three-quarters white in a school system where only one-seventh of the kids are white.

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In New York City, home to the largest black population in the country, the decision was celebrated by many liberals as the final strike against school segregation in the “backward” South. But Kenneth Clark, the first black person to earn a doctorate in psychology at Columbia University and to hold a permanent professorship at City College of New York, was quick to dismiss Northern righteousness on race matters. At a meeting of the Urban League around the time of the decision, he charged that though New York had no law requiring segregation, it intentionally separated its students by assigning them to schools based on their race or building schools deep in segregated neighborhoods. In many cases, Clark said, black children were attending schools that were worse than those attended by their black counterparts in the South.


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When it was time to submit our school choices to the city, we put down all four of the schools we visited. In May 2014, we learned Najya had gotten into our first choice, P.S. 307. We were excited but also nervous. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel pulled in the way other parents with options feel pulled. I had moments when I couldn’t ignore the nagging fear that in my quest for fairness, I was being unfair to my own daughter. I worried — I worry still — about whether I made the right decision for our little girl. But I knew I made the just one.

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Eventually I persuaded him to visit a few schools with me. Before work, we peered into the classrooms of three neighborhood schools, and a fourth, Public School 307, located in the Vinegar Hill section of Brooklyn, near the East River waterfront and a few miles from our home. P.S. 307’s attendance zone was drawn snugly around five of the 10 buildings that make up the Farragut Houses, a public-housing project with 3,200 residents across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The school’s population was 91 percent black and Latino. Nine of 10 students met federal poverty standards. But what went on inside the school was unlike what goes on in most schools serving the city’s poorest children. This was in large part because of the efforts of a remarkable principal, Roberta Davenport. She grew up in Farragut, and her younger siblings attended P.S. 307. She became principal five decades later in 2003, to a low-performing school. Davenport commuted from Connecticut, but her car was usually the first one in the parking lot each morning, often because she worked so late into the night that, exhausted, she would sleep at a friend’s nearby instead of making the long drive home. Soft of voice but steely in character, she rejected the spare educational orthodoxy often reserved for poor black and brown children that strips away everything that makes school joyous in order to focus solely on improving test scores. These children from the projects learned Mandarin, took violin lessons and played chess. Thanks to her hard work, the school had recently received money from a federal magnet grant, which funded a science, engineering and technology program aimed at drawing middle-class children from outside its attendance zone.

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For many white Americans, millions of black and Latino children attending segregated schools may seem like a throwback to another era, a problem we solved long ago. And legally, we did. In 1954, its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, striking down laws that forced black and white children to attend separate schools. But while Brown v. Board targeted segregation by state law, we have proved largely unwilling to address segregation that is maintained by other means, resulting from the nation’s long and racist history.