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Susan Ochshorn Headshot

That Ever-Elusive Equity: Not in My Backyard

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As Obama faces the nation this week, in his State of the Union address, one of New York City's most progressive enclaves is challenging a cornerstone of his education agenda. Eva Moskowitz, a former City Council member, and founder of charter schools in Harlem and the Bronx, has been pushing hard to add a new addition to her chain on Manhattan's Upper West Side. But the neighborhood's parents -- many of whom are contemplating their four-year-olds' educational future -- are on the offensive. Not in our backyard, they say.

In New York City, the fault lines of educational equity are most visible in early childhood, with preschool admissions the crucible for liberal, white, middle class parents, whose aspirations, anxiety and guilt collide in a combustible mix. While they pay lip service to equality, equity and diversity, and spend time telling you how much they love their community for its abundance of all of the above, when push comes to shove -- as it often does in this city -- "my kid" comes first.

Full disclosure: I'm one of them. And I know well the mental calibrations of the liberal imagination. A lifelong Upper West Sider, I've been both participant and spectator in this anxiety-ridden ritual since the younger days of my own children, now both 20-somethings.

My kids' early care and education experience included the usual mishmash of arrangements for families with my demographic profile: mother care, a nanny, a neighborhood cooperative child care center, application to one of the city's most competitive public preschool and kindergartens, and admission -- after much parental hustling -- to one of our district's top-rated elementary schools. In the heat of this battle -- not for the faint of heart and skewed toward parents whose advocacy skills are finely honed -- it was hard to think of much else but the quest. In quiet moments, however, away from the fray, I worried about the children left behind.

Last August, not long before the city's children returned to school, a headline in our hometown paper pierced the eerie quiet of the waning summer. "Triumph Fades on Racial Gap in City Schools," it proclaimed, topping an article with damning data about the discrepancies in math and reading scores between African-American and Hispanic third- through eighth-graders and their white peers. The findings, of course, represented a slap in the face to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Chancellor Joel Klein, whose education policies have attracted attention at the national level, and the Broad Foundation, which awarded the city its coveted annual prize in 2007 to school districts that have shown improvement in student performance. But more importantly, they reminded me, yet again, of the distance between education on the ground and that elusive vision of equity.

As my own kids have gone on to higher education and beyond, I've watched the proliferation of charter schools with a mixture of dread and skepticism. As a public school parent and alum, how could I support an alternative that threatened to undermine the public school system that I fervently believe should be the right of all children? So I nodded my head vigorously as Diane Ravitch made her case against charter schools in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. And along with my fellow progressive advocates, I reveled in her 180-degree turn-around on policies that she had long championed.

Lately, I have to confess, some doubts have been creeping in. I've given more than a second glance to Geoffrey Canada's work uptown in Harlem, the prototype for Obama's "Promise Neighorhoods" education initiative. I've watched, with interest, as a former United Federation of Teachers V.P. -- a staunch early childhood advocate -- abandoned her post to run a charter school in Brooklyn. And recently, I spent some time with a young, dynamic woman of color, who also happens to be my neighbor on the Upper West Side. She filled me in on her involvement in the creation of two charter schools for girls, one on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the other in the Bronx. When she told me that she thought Joel Klein was "brilliant," I realized how much the ground had shifted -- right in my backyard.

My commitment to public schools remains strong and I'll continue to view current education reforms, including charter schools, with healthy skepticism. But I'm trying to keep this liberal mind of mine open. True choice is relative, and elusive, especially for those children who are most vulnerable and marginalized. And our current system continues to fail them -- miserably.