If you live in the New York City area, you might have heard about the recent student protests against cuts to the arts programs at LaGuardia High School (aka the “Fame” school).

I don’t normally focus on local news, but in this case, I think the real story is much larger than what’s getting reported; in fact, I think that it’s getting overlooked entirely. I happen to have some insider knowledge of the school (colleagues, former students), and although it’s unique in many regards, some of the changes it’s undergone are actually reflective of a much larger trend involving the creeping privatization of public education.

In case you haven’t been following the events, here are the basics:

LaGuardia is one of NYC’s elite public specialized schools, offering both strong academics and pre-conservatory-level training in fine arts, music, drama, and dance. Unlike the other specialized high schools (e.g., Stuyvesant and Bronx Science), to which admission is based solely on SHSAT scores, LaGuardia selects students via a combination of auditions/portfolios and academic achievement (the SHSAT is not required).

Since Dr. Lisa Mars became principal in 2013, there has been a substantial push to increase the focus on academics, and a corresponding decrease in the school’s traditional focus on the arts. Rehearsal time for the musical, for example, has been cut in half since 2017, and studio teachers are claiming that students who would have been accepted in previous years, based on the strength of their auditions, are now being denied because their academic credentials fall short.

Unsurprisingly, this state of affairs has generated a good deal of backlash from both students and parents, who are calling for Dr. Mars’s ouster. As the headline of a NY Times article put it, “Should algebra really matter [at LaGuardia]?”

But in fact, the question is posed in a misleading way here; framing the issue in terms of aspiring artistes forced to learn pointless, boring, soul-destroying horrors like algebra plays nicely into the narrative of schools sacrificing student creativity on the altar of achievement. That makes for a good headline, but it also misses the bigger picture.

To be fair, the insistence that all students achieve at an advanced academic level is in fact unreasonable at a place like LaGuardia, but there’s another, larger dimension to the issue: the real question isn’t whether students who have no interest in pursuing STEM careers should be required to take basic algebra (it is high school, after all)—the question is whether such students should be pushed to take calculus. AP calculus, that is, emphasis on the AP part. Not, in this case, because the class is excessively rigorous for an aspiring painter, but rather because it’s a product of the College Board.

And I do mean *product* in the most literal sense, as in something that gets bought and sold.

Over the last decade or so, the curricular structure at LaGuardia has undergone a type of shift that’s become increasingly common. In the past, students who were headed for college but who were not academic superstars had the option of enrolling in honors classes if they didn’t feel they were quite up to the challenge of college-level work. Now, however, many such classes have been eliminated; for the college-bound, APs are the essentially only option since the non-AP alternatives are taught at a much, much lower level. So even if students don’t want to be taking a lot of APs, they really have no choice. (When I hear reports of students piling up ridiculous numbers of AP classes, I often wonder what other options are available to them.)

The result is that students are more likely to end up in advanced classes when they don’t have a solid foundation, and then find themselves in way over their heads academically—something I repeatedly saw in the LaGuardia students I tutored (only a couple of whom, incidentally, intended to pursue careers in the arts). Working with them was often frustrating for me because most of them genuinely liked French and wanted to do well, but the best I could do was to patch things up around the edges; I couldn’t offer them the kind of grounding in the subject they really needed.

The question, then, is why high schools are so eager to promote AP classes at the expense of internally developed alternatives.

I think there are a few reasons: first, in the current data-driven environment, AP participation provides an easily obtainable metric that can be used to improve rankings. In contrast, honors classes offer no possibility of adding to a centralized store of data.

Notably, schools are rarely judged on actual student performance on AP exams; rather, the focus is almost invariably on participation. Because the College Board collects the exam fee regardless of how students perform, the push is simply to sign up as many students as possible, regardless of whether they have the necessary background to do well. Indeed, between 1999 and 2018, AP participation ballooned from about 700,000 students at just under 13,000 schools to nearly 3,000,000 at around 22,600 schools.

In service of that goal, the College Board has done an exceptional job of promoting the narrative that taking an AP class is in itself 1) a worthwhile experience, regardless of how a student actually does; and 2) that the AP program effectively has a monopoly on rigor—by definition, a class without the AP label cannot be as rigorous or prepare students for—everyone’s favorite buzzword, c’mon say it with me—college and career readiness.

As one article notes, Laguardia’s “college readiness” score—a metric that the school has been under pressure from the DOE to improve—has risen from 89% to 98% since 2015. That’s a remarkably high jump in a very short period, and given that the composition of the student body has not changed dramatically in that time period, it is hard to imagine that those numbers correspond to an actual increase in student achievement (particularly when I’ve heard from teachers there that students can no longer handle the level of work that they routinely assigned just a few years ago).

Much fuss has been made about school privatization in the form of charters (despite the rhetorical trick of referring to them “public charter schools,” they are only public in the sense that they receive tax dollars) and voucher programs, but far less attention has been paid to the creeping privatization of public school curricula.

In fact, the systematic replacement of teacher-designed honors-level classes with pay-to-play College-Board- (or, to a lesser extent, IB-) designed AP classes is creating a hybrid system in which a school itself may be public but the classes are increasingly a product of the private sector—and the final exam comes at a price. Yes, there are fee waivers, but what about students above the cutoff line, for whom $94/exam represents a real sacrifice? Give that a $500 emergency would put most Americans in debt, that’s probably a significant percentage of the high-school population.

The College Board’s recent imposition of a $40 penalty for late registration and/or canceled exams will only exacerbate the problem. Regardless of whether the CB’s new rule requiring students to sign up for AP exams in the fall does in fact result in more students sitting for the tests, it is not hard to see how this could unlevel the play field even further: for a wealthy student, the forfeiture fee amounts to crumbs—essentially, the exam is just as optional for a student whose family earns $250,000 as it was before. For a poorer student who misses the exam, however, that’s not an insignificant amount of money for a family to lose.

If the CB were actually serious about leveling the playing field, they would, at the very least, find ways to bring costs down rather than increase them. It requires quite a feat of doublethink to accept that the College Board is doing students a favor by adding on charges.

This issue has provoked some outcry, but I also think that the extent to which the AP program has taken over the college-prep curriculum at some high schools has flown largely under the radar—backlash only emerged at LaGuardia because the school has such a focused, arts-driven mission, and for that reason the systemic aspect of the problem has been missed.

I also have the impression that when the College Board comes under fire, it generally does so for the SAT since that’s the exam most people still associate with the organization. And whereas the SAT is inevitably a source of controversy, the AP program is somewhat less tainted in the public mind—first, because the tests have always been clearly aligned with specific subjects rather than some fuzzy notion of “aptitude”; and second, because with the cost of college so high, the prospect of using AP exams to earn credits and save on tuition dollars is so enticing. In that context, $94 seems like a steal.

Moreover, since college admissions has become so competitive—in no small part because of grade and score inflation—students are under intense pressure to distinguish themselves academically. For many of them, signing up for large numbers of AP classes is the obvious solution. And again, AP has become synonymous with rigor; for many students aiming for top schools, not piling on AP classes would be unthinkable. Given that context, any sort of meaningful pushback against the program is unlikely at any but a handful of elite (mostly private) high schools that are already so well known to admissions officers at top colleges that their (non-)participation in the AP program is effectively moot. Elsewhere, it’s the College Board that drives the narrative and, increasingly, sets the terms and the consequences.