New York City parents who don’t want to pay exorbitant private school tuition compete to get their children into public magnet schools. Zoe Heller writes about her descent into schooling frenzy.

When you first arrive in New York from England, you look around at the crazy fuss that middle-class New Yorkers make about their children’s education — the multiple applications to private schools, the extravagant “donations” (i.e. bribes) made to school boards — and you think, I’ll never be like that. You don’t want to pay crippling fees so that your child can run about with a bunch of horrid prepubescent snobs in Dior combat trousers. When the time comes, your child will attend the perfectly good state school down the road.

Then you hear about a “top-of-the-line state school for brainy children.”

It’s very difficult to get in, of course, but you decide it’s worth a try. And this is how it starts. This is how a perfectly sensible, non-neurotic parent gets suckered into the city-wide schooling frenzy.

First, the child’s IQ must be tested. Which psychologist gives the highest scores?

Now you have to fill out another, longer application form, full of questions like, “What are your child’s particular skills and talents?” And “How would you, as a parent, like to be involved with our school?” You write that you and your “partner” wish to be very, very involved in the school — that you would like to come in on weekends and scrub floors. Knowing that the school puts a high premium on “diversity”, you try to persuade your boyfriend to pretend that he is an Iranian Jew. He’s very tanned, you tell him, and it’s not as if they’re going to ask to see his passport. But your boyfriend steadfastly refuses.

You receive an appointment for the next round. You are to take her to the school at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning, where a panel of educational experts will observe her playing games with a group of other four-year-olds.

Heaven help the late bloomer.

About Joanne


  1. This is why we’re going to homeschool. We can’t afford any “worthwhile” school here in NYC, and even if we could, I would not want to go through the hassle (or have my child in such a pampered/pressured peer group).

  2. Oh, gosh. All we had to do, here in our little benighted Southern city, was to show the most recent report card and standardized test scores, and prove that we lived inside the city limits.

  3. Great fun in NYC there! Sounds like some cities in California I’ve lived in, like Santa Barbara.

    These frenzied parents might want to stop and ask if this “top-of-the-line state school for brainy children” offer any kind of warranty, or if the school will guarantee to actually educate the child successfully.

    Or, for example, the could ask if the school will warranty to refrain from applying pedagogical techniques that are known to *not* work very well.

    If not, what exactly are the parents paying for?

    Joe the bemused homeschooler in New Mexico

  4. Independent George says:

    Knowing that the school puts a high premium on “diversity”, you try to persuade your boyfriend to pretend that he is an Iranian Jew.

    Time for Pejman to move to the East coast!

  5. I’m right in the midst of that garbage now. I have a 4 year old and we’re heading for kindergarten in NYC this fall. It’s really, really bad. There is a growing number of middle class families in the city who can’t afford the $25,000 to attend a private school. And there are a small number of public schools that are excellent.

    IQ tests, formal interviews, applications, school tours, recommendations — that’s all part of life here. There are special music school where 4 year olds have to go through three rounds of tests. If they get into these schools, parents could spend 4 hours a day taking the kid back and forth to school.

    We started the process, but decided to just send our son to the local, regular school until we can move to the suburbs. I felt that all that testing was too much pressure on a four year old, and I couldn’t face all that time on the subway to take him to those special schools.

  6. Laura (southernxyl) says:

    Joe, to answer your question – we chose this school for our daughter due to its excellent reputation, validated by the fact that it routinely graduates the highest number of National Merit scholars of any high school in the state.

    I’m changing my name to differentiate myself from other Lauras.

  7. I don’t know about middle schools but I have been impressed by the high schools in NYC. I teach tenth grade chemistry at the Bronx High School of Science.

    Quick overview: New York City has over one million students in public schools, K-12. 20,000 8th graders sit for the high school entrance exam each year. Of those, 3,000 get to go to one of the three premier institutions: Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, or Bronx High School of Science. From what I see at BHHS, the kids who pass are about like who you’d find in a good suburban high school.

    Besides those three schools there are about ten other very interesting high school options includint the City as School program and the Aviation High School ( as well as the controversial Harvey Milk HS which is “gay-friendly”.

    An FAQ document about admissions is at

    The test itself is at:

  8. Question to Easterners and NYCers:

    What about parochial (e.g., Catholic) schools? Do they cost $25,000? Do they have a reputation for good education? Where do they fit into the school-choice equation?

    I grew up in OH—there was a big difference in cost between Catholic schools and non-Catholic private schools, but they had similar reputations for academic rigor and quality. I should amend that to say “diocesan” schools were less expensive…. there were a couple of pricey “prep academies” in town, one run by Jesuits and the oher by Ursulines. Most Catholic schools were definitely within reach of middle-class parents.

    We Midwesterners have never really had the obsession with private schools I keep hearing about in the East, both secondary and college. The idea of getting your 4-year-old into the “right” kindergarten i utterly alien to me, as is the idea of paying tens of thousands of dollars a year for a private liberal arts colege education. Why on earth would anyone want to do that? I can’t think of a good reason other than “I have money to burn” or “I enjoy being in debt.”

  9. Erin

    I live right outside of Philadelphia and our public school system is nothing special, even though I pay approx 200 a month in taxes for these schools. My wife taught 6th grade CCD last year and was saddened by the fact that most of the kids (she had 15 students) could not read at anywhere what seemed reasonable.

    We send our kids to parochial school, because they stress self discipline, reading, writing, math and religion. We get a fair amount of non catholics and non parishoners (IE kids from the city) whose parents feel shelling out an extra 150 a month and shlepping the kid to school is worth the effort. Are they getting the same education as parents shelling out 25,000 grand a year. I don’t know the answer, but the kids can at least read. And they do this for an average cost of maybe 3000 grand per kid overall (counting parish subsidies, fundraisers etc). And in the city of Philadelphia, with an average of 7000+ the kids don’t have books, the classrooms are a disgrace and they read at way below level. I will never send a kid to public school.

  10. Kevin, thanks. It seems that so few news articles on the “frenzy” related to private schools and school choice mention the effect that parochial schools have on the “market”—I realize that many parents would deliberately avoid Catholic schools for philosophical and religious reasons, and that is fine, but they’re still there and they’re still a choice—and usually they do *not* run $25,000 per year (at least not around here—that’s why I wanted to ask the Easterners if they were more expensive out your way.)

    As an aside, I always think it’s really funny in the voucher debate re: parochial schools getting public money and that supporting the “church” with state funds. You’d think that all the tuition goes to religious indoctrination and none of it pays for pencils, math books, desks, bathrooms, or teacher salaries. What’s more, at least at the elementary level the parishioners are usually footing part of the school’s bill via their Sunday donations (one of the reasons why it’s less expensive than other options, that and they can pay teachers less overall b/c some are religious with a stated mission to teach and others are happy to teach in a religious school for less money)—so you might look at it as the church funneling money to the students! I would be curious to see a breakdown in parochial-school financing that mentioned exactly what proportion of the budget went to the religious part of religious education, and also listed how much came from sources of funding other than tuition, so we could determine exactly what dollar value of a “voucher” would be spent on activities relevant to the First Amendment objections to vouchers. (I know it doesn’t split up neatly into religious/nonreligious, but some expenditures—capital expenses, certain texts, etc.—are clearly nonreligious.)

  11. John from OK says:

    What kind of tests have to be passed for admission to Harvey Milk HS? How would they determine who would be a “good fit”?

  12. PJ/Maryland says:


    I checked around, and found that Xavier HS in Manhattan has a current tuition of $8200; a third of the students receive some financial aid. (Xavier is one of the better religious schools in NY; it’s boys-only.) There is an associated Xavier church, but I don’t know if that parish subsidizes the high school or not (I’d guess not). The school is a Jesuit school, but I don’t know if the parish is run by Jesuits or not.

    My experience agrees with your point about parish subsidies. Usually the elementary school is subsidized by the parish, but most high schools are not. Few parishes are big enough to fill a high school with in-parish kids, and obviously there’re good reasons not to subsidize out-of-parish kids; the tendency is to try to break even.

    I found a listing of an assortment of private (including some religious) NY schools here. It says Marymount charges $13.6 to 22.4k, for what good that is. And I found the website for Cardinal Spellman HS in the Bronx; their tuition is $5200 per year. (I’d rank them as an average Catholic HS; only 90%-95% of their grads go on to college.)

  13. PJ/Maryland says:

    John, I found this article online that talks a bit about Harvey Milk, including this info on admissions:

    In order to get in to Harvey Milk, students must fill out a brief application, provide routine documentation (e.g. birth certificate, transcripts, etc.), and, perhaps most importantly, meet with [Principal] Salzman.

    Salzman said that he does not ask potential students about their sexual orientation during the application process. He instead asks students and parents whether they would be comfortable with the school knowing the nature of its population, a population he thus implicitly acknowledges is primarily LGBQT.

    The school only started this past September. Frankly, I doubt it will last long, since most people dislike the segregation aspect. And if there is no segregation, what’s the point?

    P.S. LGBQT (or more usually, LGBTQ) means Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning.

  14. Gifted Parent says:

    These are the folks who breed “giftees.” See Feb 20th article “g*****s.” Parochial education is fantastic, but it just doesn’t have that “status.”

  15. I live in Silicon Valley. It cracks me up to meet some of the parents out here who are just as nutty as the New Yorkers about the whole “right kindergarten” thing for their kid. However, I haven’t heard of it in reference to the public school system, just the private schools. There are honestly people out here who are convinced that whether or not Johnny gets into the right preschool or kindergarten will determine whether or not he gets into Stanford someday… I always thought it was a combination of innate intelligence, hard work/good study habits, a decent to above average school and a fair dose of luck.

  16. Toni from NYC says:

    This is fascintating because I’ve lived in NYC for 12 years (no kids), but have taught at a local college and babysat. A few observations:

    1. Having taught at Hunter College, the majority of the students attended NYC’s public schools. That being the case, I can tell you after teaching for over seven years, on average, one-third of my students in a given course were not prepared to do college level work. What does that mean? They lacked the skills to read, write and think critically. So, does getting into a good public school matter? In NYC it does! The schools are disastrous, save for the top three high schools mentioned in the above post.

    2. As I finish my doctorate, I’ve been a high paid babysitter. My charge, that I have been watching for over 4 years, is currently in first grade attending a private school. Having attended a public school for kindergarten in Tribecca (supposively one of the best elementary schools in Manhattan) my charge’s parents decided to try private school for first grade. Typically kindergarteners acquire letter recognition and they begin to read. Unfortunately my charge could not consistently recognize her letters and she was not reading at all by the end of kindergarden. (Incidentally, she is a brilliant child whose vocabulary equals many 9 or 10 year olds, so she is not slow by any means.) Upon entering the private school in Brooklyn, they assessed her as needing a reading tutor!

    3. In the end, getting into a good school when you are in kindergarten is important in NYC especially because fundamental skills are learned during the first two years. NYC schools are not on par with suburban schools or even many urban schools in the rest of the US. Hence any minimally educated parent becomes part of the education frenzy….it may seem odd to those on the outside, but as the saying goes “you gotta be in it, to see it.”

  17. Having worked with admissions at a top university once, I can say that a disproportionate share of the kids accepted on merit only came from Catholic/parochial schools.

  18. The state of NYC schools is partly the culture of the schools, which is, I think, not all that bad. Definitely there is room for many, many improvements.

    But more importantly, the population of students is very