Author’s research reveals lack of equity in school choice model

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School choice programs aimed at resolving educational inequity do not produce equal benefits for all students, according to Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, author and visiting Seton Hall University professor who spoke at an on-campus lecture Wednesday afternoon.

Based on her research from a two-year ethnography study, Sattin-Bajaj wrote “Unaccompanied Minors: Immigrant Youth, School Choice and the Pursuit of Equity” to explain equity conflicts that emerge because eighth-grade students in New York City are required to choose the high school they want to attend.

“When I did this study, I was in part interrogating some of the underlying theories of choice,” Sattin-Bajaj said. “It’s pitched by some as a potential equity lever. It’s pitched by others as creating competition in the marketplace so that only the good schools will survive.”

Huriya Jabbar, education assistant professor at UT, said school choice programs aimed to address issues of equity. Rather than requiring students to attend schools based on location, the program intended to provide them with more options.

“While the goal is to improve all schools for all children, choice was initially a way of providing an alternative to students who would have had to attend their neighborhood school if it was a low-performing school,” Jabbar said.

Choosing from 704 options, rising ninth graders submit an application with the names of 12 public schools they would like to attend, Sattin-Bajaj said. Programs and application methods for schools vary from specialized high schools determining admission through a one-time test to educational option schools that accept students on a bell curve.

Citywide fairs and open houses provide resources for students and parents to navigate the options and find schools they are interested in. The Department of Education emphasizes their expectations of parents preparing students for this process, Sattin-Bajaj said.

When attending these events, Sattin-Bajaj said she generally saw only upper-middle class parents. Through interviews, she found not all parents have the same view when engaging in choice.

During interviews with Latin American immigrant parents, Sattin-Bajaj said a majority thought their responsibility was to raise a respectful child at home, not to identify the perfect school for their child.

“It wasn’t always easy for parents to articulate what they cared about because they hadn’t spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about it,” Sattin-Bajaj said.

Karisma Morton, Ph.D. student in math education, said she was motivated to attend the lecture to learn more about Sattin-Bajaj’s research on fairness within the school choice model.

“A new perspective on equity will help me look at my own research with a different lens,” Morton said.