Education

Seattle's School System Has Begun Dismantling Its Gifted Programs

Parents should be able to respond to this blunt dismissal of their children's needs by taking their business elsewhere.

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As if to demonstrate why school choice matters, Seattle's education system is purposefully dismantling a program to serve its gifted students at one of its schools—and completely ignoring parents' wishes in the process.

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

The program has historically been dominated by white and Asian students, to the frustration of folks who want to see more diversity in such offerings. But rather than working to improve access for minorities, some school leaders—including Superintendent Denise Juneau—decided that the gifted classes are a form of "redlining," which is the historical practice of not granting mortgages to people who live in minority communities. The Seattle Public School District thus wants to kill off the HCC program. The changes at Washington Middle School are just the start, district leaders hope.

As The Stranger's Katie Herzog reports, the parents of minority kids in the program are particularly unhappy at the prospect of their children going back to 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," Herzog heard one father testify to the school district. "The program does more for black children, particularly black boys, than it does for their peers."

Other minority parents told Herzog similar stories about the life-saving potential of gifted classes. "Their kids…get bored in the general ed classroom, and then [they] end up being tagged as disruptive when what they need is just accelerated curriculum," Herzog wrote.

Only 1.6 percent of the HCC program's participants are African-American. But for those kids' parents, that's a reason to expand it, not end it. One parent told Herzog that Juneau hadn't talked to minority parents who have kids in the program to get their feedback. Instead, School Board Director Chandra Hampson claimed that these families 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 would rather eliminate a successful program than try to enlarge its reach. He cites one school administrator who reportedly told a parent that the program leads to "opportunity hoarding" by the privileged.

That kind of zero-sum argument can lead to a dark 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,'" Westneat wrote. Yet "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."

It should be horrifying to any parent that there are school districts run by bureaucrats who think educational equality means not just improving opportunities and outcomes for students who are behind the curve but also impeding students who are moving faster than average. What's more, this isn't happening just in Seattle. Reason's Matt Welch has written about a similar fight in New York City to abolish gifted programs at public schools.

"This is a debate about what is the role and purpose of a public school district," Seattle parent Chun Ng told Westneat. "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 is so important. Parents should be able to respond to Juneau's blunt dismissal of their children's needs by taking their business elsewhere.