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How I Put Away My Atari 2600 and Learned to Love School Choice

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School choice – specifically the lack of it – was my gateway issue into libertarian politics.

I was like a lot of 13-year-old kids growing up in New York City. I had no sense of my own future, much less a concrete political ideology to guide me. All I knew for sure was that my junior high school was stiflingly, soul-numbingly dull.

Another thing I didn't realize at the time: I was zoned for a public high school that was no different. Until somewhere around the 8th grade, I had assumed public high schools were like every other consumer good, that my parents could choose the school that was best for me.

So it came as a strange shock to learn that public schools were not like shoes or cars or even public universities. In retrospect, it was a kind of entry to adulthood, a loss of innocence, to discover that there are other, larger forces at work, beyond your control, that shape your future. Zoning meant that my first 12 years of schooling would be based entirely on the block where my parents had chosen to live. Along the way, I'd be accompanied by the same set of students, the same educational philosophy, the same formula, and in all likelihood, the same results.

For the vast majority of students in New York City in the mid-1980s, zoning was destiny. There were no charter schools. The idea of school vouchers seemed as elusive, and about as plausible, as a flux capacitor. The NYC Board of Education was the unchallenged overseer of the city's schools – one bureaucracy set the path; everyone else followed.

There was, however, one way out. Magnet schools weren't exactly an exit from the prevailing system – they were administered by the same Board of Education – but at least they had a measure of autonomy and offered a different approach to schooling.

The catch was that magnets like Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science, and LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts, were only open through competitive admission. And the competition was intense. Because many zoned schools were undesirable, the chances of getting accepted to a magnet school at the time was on the order of 30-to-1.

I took my application to LaGuardia with the seriousness it required. I spent 8th and 9th grades preparing for the rigorous, three-hour audition. I put away my beloved Atari 2600 and spent my summers studying Shakespeare's comedies. My parents were generous enough to hire a college drama student to give me private lessons, once a week, to teach me how to recite a monologue and improvise on a stage.

Eventually, I was accepted to LaGuardia. I'm not sure what was the greater thrill at the time: to attend a great high school, or to have narrowly avoided a rotten one. The excitement also came with a bitter aftertaste. For everyone like myself, who gained acceptance to a magnet school, there were as many as 29 others who were denied admisssion. I had many friends who didn't "make it in" and they were stuck with whatever school the bureaucracy had to offer.

Fast forward three decades, and public schools seem only a bit less unfair. Only 6% of New York City high school students attend a charter school. The magnet schools are still around, and they're as competitive as ever. For too many families, zoning is still destiny.

But that is changing fast. Other cities across America are moving to school choice more rapidly than New York City– and reaping the rewards. That's why it was a great pleasure to produce this video about New Orleans, which boasts America's first all-charter school district. Every student there enjoys the dream I have hoped for since I was a teenager: to participate in school choice. 

But how is it working out so far? Schools are complex and contentious institutions, and New Orleans' path to improvement has been a difficult one. Click below, and I'll show you all about it.

Will Regulation Ruin School Choice in New Orleans

Runs about 7:30 minutes.

Produced, shot, narrated, and edited by Todd Krainin.