Attacks against private school options are frequent and fervent, but what happens when public school opportunities become the point of confliction?
You may have seen some of the recent conversations and editorializing on the chaos ensuing in New York City with regard to its gifted and talented program. If you have not, let me be the first to catch you up.
Mayor Bill de Blasio established a commission of sorts to issue recommendations to promote greater diversity amongst the city’s public schools. This is the second report the group has produced this year. But this second go-around has attracted much greater attention than the first.
Perhaps the attention is due to the fact that the panel is recommending the elimination of the city’s gifted and talented programs in favor of more “inclusionary enrichment models … that promote integrated schools and ensure that all students are challenged.”
To be clear, the recommendations include:
Elimination of the gifted and talented kindergarten admissions test.
A moratorium on new gifted and talented programs, while phasing out existing programs.
Elimination of the use of “exclusionary” admissions practices including test scores.
Elimination of the creation of new screened high schools.
All of these recommendations are under the guise of creating schools with greater equity and making headway on a long-sought goal of desegregating the school system, which is often cited as one of the most segregated public school systems in the country. The problem is this solution does not solve the issue at hand.
It is no secret that gifted and talented education programs across the country have track-records of favoring well-off families who are able to make the investments, both financial and time, to ensure their children are identified as “gifted and talented” and, perhaps more importantly, claim a coveted spot at a selective enrollment school. This is true of New York City Public Schools as well.
The vast majority of students participating in gifted and talented programs in New York City are White and Asian students, despite a much more diverse overall district makeup.
In response to these recommendations, parents, including those in influential positions across the City, have met Mayor de Blasio and Education Commissioner Richard Carranza with outcry. So much so that neither the mayor, who sent at least one of his children to an elite selective enrollment high school, nor the commissioner has committed to adopting these recommendations. The advocacy of the affected parents has been critical to this tepidness.
Back in the “Land of Lincoln,” Empower Illinois has long been a champion for all students having educational options that work best for their unique needs, and this certainly includes low-income, minority students. In Illinois, middle-to-high income families claim 67% of the spots in gifted programs, despite only representing 43% of the overall student population.
When broken down along racial groups, the mismatch is even wider. This is why in 2016, Empower Illinois worked alongside a coalition of interested partners to pass the Untapped Potential Act, which requires local school districts to put in place admissions procedures consistent with local norms and best practices for identifying gifted and talented learners.
We all should be concerned about leaving gifted and talented students behind simply because they lack the financial and influential means of their peers. We should be equally concerned with New York City’s response to this challenge.
In Illinois, the problem the Untapped Potential Act of 2016 sought to solve is the same problem Mayor de Blasio’s commission is seeking to solve. The difference is the Untapped Potential Act is a fairer and more student-centered solution.
When fully implemented, the Act would require universal screening of all students in districts with gifted and talented education programs, which will allow greater numbers of low-income minority students access to programs they currently lack access to. This will create a more equitable system, while keeping in place the defining program design and standards.
Eliminating high-quality schools and programs for exceptional learners further reduces options for families seeking them for their children. Empower Illinois will continue to be advocates for all students having high-quality educational options wherever they may be. In Illinois, that means advocating that the legislature refocus its efforts on gifted and talented program funding so that more students have the opportunity to unlock the benefits of the Untapped Potential Act.
Nathan C. Hoffman serves as Policy and Research Director for Empower Illinois. Nathan’s career has been rooted in advancing educational opportunity, quality and accountability. A native Illinoisan, Nathan was born and raised in Springfield and served a term on the Board of Directors for the Springfield Public Schools.