National School Choice Week

Seattle's School System Wants to Dismantle Its Gifted Programs. This Is Why School Choice Matters.

When educators don't see their parents and students as customers, they make some really stupid decisions.


As if to demonstrate why parents should pay attention to National School Choice Week, Seattle's school system is purposefully dismantling a program to serve its gifted students—and completely ignoring parents' wishes in the process.

Last week the Seattle School Board voted to partner with a nonprofit to change and (they hope) improve the curriculum of Washington Middle School. Unfortunately, these changes are coming at the expense of the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC), an extremely popular gifted program that lets the students who score the highest on standardized tests participate in a specialized classes. There, they study material several grade levels higher than the ordinary curriculum.

The program has historically been dominated by white and Asian students, and this hasn't set well with some folks who want to see more diversity in advanced programs. But rather than improve access, some school leaders—including Superintendent Denise Juneau—have decided that the whole program is a form of "redlining" and are trying to kill off the whole thing, over the objections of their own customers.

As The Stranger's Katie Herzog reports, the parents of minority kids in the program are unhappy at the possibility that their children might be tossed back into regular classes:

"My request is that you please consider the disservice you would be doing to the minorities that are already in the HCC program," one father testified on Wednesday. "The program does more for black children, particularly black boys, than it does for their peers." He said that in his neighborhood school, his son's cognitive abilities weren't recognized and he was treated as a behavioral problem.

Many of the minority HCC parents I've spoken to over the past few months echoed this: Their kids aren't identified as academically gifted by their teachers, they get bored in the general ed classroom, and then end up being tagged as disruptive when what they need is just accelerated curriculum.

Only 1.6 percent of program's participants are African-American. But for these parents, that's a reason expand it, not end it. One parent told Herzog that Juneau hasn't talked to minority parents who have kids in the program to get their feedback. They don't seem to care about how minority students who do participate in the program have benefited. Instead, School Board Director Chandra Hampson claimed that these parents were being "tokenized" and used by white people to maintain the program.

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat is baffled by those at the school district who want to eliminate a successful program rather than trying to expand its reach. One school administrator told a parent that the program is "manufactured brilliance" that leads to "opportunity hoarding" by the privileged. Westneat has been seeing the term tossed around a lot lately, and he thinks it leads to a very ugly place:

Undoing such hoarding "is delicate territory," the scholar Richard Reeves explained a few years back, because "improving rates of upward relative mobility from the bottom comes with a sting in the tail: it requires more downward mobility from the top."

Does it though? That's only if it's all a zero-sum game.

Educational opportunity isn't a capped resource (at least it doesn't have to be). In the HCC program, for example, there aren't a fixed number of slots, like in, say, admission to a selective college. So one kid getting in has no effect on another kid's chances.

It should be horrifying to any parent that there are people out there who think educational equality means not just improving opportunities for those who are struggling but purposefully impeding opportunities for those the district deems too far ahead. And this isn't just happening in Seattle. Reason's Matt Welch has written about a similar fight in New York City.

When I was in middle school, we read Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," a science fiction story about a future that achieved equality by handicapping those who were more talented than others. How else could we describe dismantling an education program entirely because it helps high-achieving students?

Parent Chun Ng tells Westneat the likely outcome if the program disappears:

"This is a debate about what is the role and purpose of a public school district," he said. "Is it to get every kid to a basic standard? Or is it to foster the potential of every kid? What the district is proposing here is like Medicaid, sort of a broad safety-net approach. It's understandable because, like with Medicaid, they have people falling through the cracks. But if you want more than that, I guess you have to go to private school."

And that, ultimately, is why school choice matters. Parents should be able to respond to Juneau's blunt dismissal of their children's needs by taking their business elsewhere.

Reason is celebrating National School Choice Week. This story is part of a series that will be published over the course of the week highlighting different K-12 education options available to children and families.