2019 National High School Essay Contest

Read 2018’s winning essays here.



The third annual Columbia Political Review high school essay contest is complete! Every year, the CPR staff comes together to review submissions of high schoolers' essays from all over the world and to judge them based on their force of argument, clarity, concision, and use of evidence. (To that end, we encourage students to include in-text hyperlinks in their pieces when referencing other articles or studies.) This year's prompt was: "What's an issue specific to your hometown that you'd like to fix, and how would you go about doing that?"

CPR is also thrilled to announce that the winner, along with being published on our website, will receive a $500 cash prize. CPR will also award two essays with an "Honorable Mention," which comes with a $100 prize. Winners were selected based on careful, concise writing, clear theses, and persuasive argumentation.

The winning essays are published below and were lightly edited for grammar and formatting. Congratulations!

Winning Essay, 2019

A Worthy Goal: Integrating New York City Schools

For eighth-grade students attending New York City public schools, March 18 is the most important day of the year. Every year, the anxiousness surrounding high school admissions is apparent when walking down my sixth-to-twelfth grade school’s narrow hallways. Eighth-graders gather in corners speaking in hushed tones, shooting worried glances at one other, asking, “Did you get in?”

It was only four years ago that I held that small, white envelope in my hands, convinced that my life’s trajectory was dependent on what was written on that sheet of paper. Around the city, 78,000 other eighth-grade students also received their admission results, most of us hoping to gain admission to the elite public high schools, the Specialized High Schools and the top magnet schools.

Racial segregation in New York City public schools has become one of the most contentious issues of the past few years. With 1.1 million students, New York City has the largest and one of the most segregated school districts in the country. 65 years after Black v. Board of Education, we continue to grapple with the issue of racial segregation in public schools. In one of the most diverse cities in the world, classrooms are not reflective of their surrounding communities. With so many students in our school system, there is tremendous opportunity to positively impact students’ lives. However, as it is right now, the public school system continues to perpetuate inequity, leaving the most vulnerable students, low-income black and Latinx students, at a severe disadvantage to their white and Asian peers. Just last month, out of nearly 900 available slots in Stuyvesant High School’s freshman class, the most elite public high school, only 7 black students gained admission.

Stuyvesant is not an anomaly. Only 10.5% of offers at the eight of nine specialized high schools that require the SHSAT admissions exam went to black and Latinx students, despite the fact that 66.5% of NYC public school students are black and Latinx. The issue of school segregation is not just limited to the Specialized High Schools that serve only 6% of the city’s high school students. New York City schools screen students more than any other school district around the country. 190 of 830 public middle and high schools screen applicants, usually by grades and test scores, but also by artistic ability. The result is that the city’s magnet schools, those that screen applicants, are still predominantly white and Asian.

While academic tracking within schools—separating students into classes based on academic ability—has become obsolete due to concerns in 1980s that it severely harms students in lower tracks, tracking between schools has increased. Mayor Bloomberg’s school choice initiative, intended to help students escape failing schools, has led parents with resources and social capital to put their kids on a conveyor belt from the best elementary schools, to the best middle schools, and then to the city’s elite high schools. This phenomenon has led schools which are deemed “bad” to have worse performance as an exodus of students has left them under-enrolled and thus with less funding. The presence of tracking prior to 1980 had allowed high-achieving black and Latinx students to gain admission to the Specialized High Schools, as they were placed in honors classes in middle schools that prepared them for the admissions exams. As academic tracking within schools was eliminated, programs like Prep for Prep, TEAK, and Oliver’s Scholars were founded, giving high-achieving, low-income students of color the opportunity to attend independent schools around the city - effectively removing them from the public school system altogether.

Reinstituting tracking is not the solution for integrating New York City public schools. Mayor Bill De Blasio and Chancellor Carranza unveiled a plan to “improve diversity at Specialized High Schools” by eliminating the SHSAT exam over a three year period and automatically giving the top 7% of students at each middle school a spot. Currently, some of the city’s “best” middle schools are feeder schools for the Specialized High Schools and top magnet schools, while other schools - those that are predominantly black and Latinx - do not have any students gaining admission. While this plan would increase black and Latinx admissions offers to Specialized High Schools from 10% to 45%, opponents of the plan argue that it hurts Asian-American students who would lose 50% of their seats. Asian-Americans are increasingly being pitted against black and Latinx communities in the issue of segregation, despite their being the minority group with the highest poverty rate in New York City. A test can never be fair. It is easily gamed by those with the resources to attain high-quality test prep. But the solution cannot involve pitting one minority group against another.

However successful the Mayor and Chancellor’s plan may be, the 94% of high-school students who attend non-specialized schools will not reap any benefit. Their solution simply puts a bandage on this growing problem; one that cannot be solved simply by integrating the very elite schools. The system requires a complete overhaul. The achievement gap between students of different races begins in elementary school and widens throughout middle school. Integrating high schools is not a worthy goal when many black and Latinx students have spent the first 10 years of their education left to fall behind. In order to attack the city’s segregation issue at its core, Title I schools, those with the largest concentrations of low-income students require more support.

In April of 2018, Mayor de Blasio announced $125 million in extra funding for New York City schools, which will increase funding for schools to 90% under the Fair Student Funding formula, which provides most schools budgets. However, schools that serve predominantly low-income students are still not receiving their fair share. In the 2019 New York State School Funding Transparency Forms, the Department of Education stated that one of FSF’s principles is that “Different students have different educational needs, and funding levels should reflect those needs as best as possible.” Needy high schools receive 22 percent more funding than do lower-need schools. That 22 percent difference in funding is not enough to decrease gaps between high-needs and low-needs schools. According to Education Trust-New York, the creator of New York School Funding Transparency Tool, “The federal government assumes that providing a quality education to low-income students requires 40% more funding than for non-low income students.” The greater needs of low-income students are not adequately addressed through FSF, putting the schools with high shares of low-income students at a severe disadvantage. As Governor Cuomo refuses to fulfill the state’s obligations under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and federal funds shrink for low-income students, low-income students are consistently left behind. Selective schools, like the Specialized High Schools, receive an extra $1000 per student despite enrolling a wealthier population. 42% of students at Stuyvesant High School receive free and reduced lunch, which is significantly lower than the 74% of students who are economically disadvantaged in NYC. These elite schools receive even more funding in donations by their alumni organizations, yet the city continues to prioritize them over the low-income majority of who do not attend these schools.

The blame, however—and the solution—lies with Governor Cuomo and his failure to fund New York State Schools under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity was a thirteen-year-long court case that began in 1993 and claimed that New York State was underfunding schools in New York City. CFE won the case in 2006 and the state government promised an additional $5.4 billion in school aid for school districts around the state. CFE would provide NYC with the means to decrease class sizes, provide up-to-date curriculum, more technology, books, and other instrumentalities of learning. 13 years later, the state has failed to meet these obligations. Instead, Governor Cuomo wastes $30 million on vanity projects like blue and gold tiles in two city tunnels, all whilst blaming school districts for misusing funds. Increased school funding has the ability to propel the most vulnerable students forward and fix our broken system. Our elected officials continue to fail us by not exploring that solution.

All too often, proponents of integration use racist statements to frame the debate as improving the educational outcomes of lower-performing black and Latinx students by placing them with their higher-achieving white and Asian peers. In a quest to diversify our city’s schools, I fear that we have lost sight of the real issue at hand. The underlying issue is one of the haves and have-nots: the schools and students that are well-resourced and those that are not. Four years ago, when I opened the white envelope with my admissions result, I was ecstatic. I received an offer to my first choice, one of the top magnet schools in New York City. But I made the right choice by remaining in my small, public, all-girls, middle and high school. Rather than take a commute that totaled three hours to attend a segregated school, I decided to continue to take my 20-minute walk to one of the rare diverse schools in the city. For the outraged parents of students in elite schools, settle down. The diversity that I have experienced in my school, has only enriched my high-school experience in a way that going to a selective but homogenous school could never have done.

Salma Elsayed, The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria


Honorable Mentions, 2019

Constraining Runaway Growth and Unattainability in Phoenix

For most people in Chandler, Arizona, the unfinished Elevation Chandler hotel was a sore sight to see. Until its demolition in 2014, every driver who passed by the hotel’s concrete carcass experienced all of the excitement of the runaway development of the housing bubble and the suffering during the Great Recession. By late 2009, Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs had some of the highest unemployment rates in the United States, peaking at 11.7 percent. Home values dropped to half of what they were in the years before the Great Recession and many of the construction companies propping up Arizona’s economy failed overnight. Phoenix’s decades of meteoric post-war economic growth had come to an end. From being a hallmark of middle-class luxury, Phoenix saw itself become one of the hardest-hit cities in the 2008 recession. According to the head of the Arizona Bankers Association, this vulnerability came from an extreme reliance on a “one-dimensional housing economy.”

Phoenix is a “megapolis,” with sixteen suburbs and unincorporated territories orbiting the main city, making it the fifth-largest city by land area in the United States. This is evidence of Arizona’s obsession and dependence on growth, in both consumption and population. Arizona’s politicians were taken by the mid-Cold War dogma of “growth for growth’s sake” that advocated scoring high on economic indicators without actually asking if any value had been created. Every economic activity taking place in Arizona stems from this mindset. Even when Phoenix purportedly diversifies, it is contingent on the promise of wild growth; from microchips to military research companies, Intel to Raytheon, businesses only come to Arizona wooed by the standard of living promised by developers. Unfortunately, if businesses stop expanding and people cut back consumption, such as during a recession, this industry will fall apart as it did in 2008.

However, considering Arizona’s sparse environment and lack of resources, providing a McMansion and a swimming pool to every corporate employee should be expensive and unsustainable. In addition, growth begets more growth; as the population increases, more and more services are demanded, drawing in more migrants, leading to an exponential rise in costs. So, how can developers be possibly be profitable and continue to build in Arizona? This occurs because companies and individuals bear few of the costs that come from the natural constraints of the Arizona environment. Phoenix is the only city consistently ranked in both the top ten fastest-growing cities and in the top ten driest cities in the United States. In a state that receives fewer than nine inches of rain annually, water consumption is considerably cheaper than it is in the rest of the country. As a result, farmers produce low-yield, cheap, and water-intensive crops like alfalfa and cotton, and developers continue to build communities farther and farther from direct water sources. This perceived abundance of water is not a result of prudent water conservation or a preponderance of untapped underground aquifers. Instead, these deflated prices are a result of mismanagement and policies that incentivize wasteful uses of water. It was not an organic expansion in capital, resources, or technology that allowed for Phoenix’s boom, but instead a six-decade-long government policy that made housing projects in the Valley of the Sun seem profitable, even though no one would have invested a cent in Arizona’s land without the state government’s support. Therefore, a policy must allow water users to realize the costs of their activities to encourage sustainable water usage and prevent uncontrollable growth.

In Arizona and much of the Southwest, water rights are allocated and maintained through prior appropriation and the “Use It or Lose It” rule. The doctrine of prior appropriation asserts that water is a public resource which the state can issue permits for to “beneficial uses”. This has the perverse incentive of encouraging the overuse of water sources. Since conserving water could lead to the loss of the permit, owners are forced to misallocate water to wasteful short term uses rather than to responsibly save it long-term. Therefore, there is no reason to develop houses with sustainable, xeriscaped landscapes, save water by planting high-yield desert crops, or adopt modern, water conserving agricultural machinery; individuals either use all of their water, or lose their rights to it. Selling unused water rights is almost impossible or extremely difficult across state lines. In addition, aspects of prior appropriation drought planning measures are unfair to new developers. During droughts, the earliest users, who have vested water rights, are required to reduce their water usage the least and receive the most water from a source, even if the earliest users may actually require less water than others. It is clear that prior appropriation in Arizona is far from allocatively efficient and incentivizes wasteful behavior. However, farmers and large developers wield enough political clout to inspire support for prior appropriation in local politicians. Therefore, any prospective policy to fix Phoenix’s water allocation problem will have to affect agribusiness and developers’ pocketbooks.

To ensure that water rights go to those valuing them most, all permits must be in a state of perpetual auction. Eric Posner and E. Glen Weyl pitch a similar strategy in their book Radical Markets to ensure the optimal allocation of private property. First, state governments will consolidate existing water rights into tradable securities. However, their prices are not decided based on supply and demand like most stocks. Instead, as Posner and Weyl propose, each water user submits their own assessment of their water uses value per gallon, and pay a 7–10% tax on this appraisal. If any trader bids higher than the current holder of the permit for any amount of water, the rights for that amount of water automatically transfers to the bidder who also incurs the tax on their appraisal. This volatility in water usage is a stark contrast from the perpetual nature of prior appropriation. This change would incentivize users to minimize their water usage to only the most efficient and highest value uses. For example, under prior appropriation, a farmer might very thirsty crops, and tolerate leakages in irrigation systems while only getting an average $5 benefit per gallon for the 1000 gallons of water in their permit, since they do not incur the cost of their water use. With an auction and self-assessment tax, the farmer would start planting high demand desert plants and implementing water conserving technologies bringing their average benefit up to $15 per gallon at a water use of a mere 500 gallons. This would increase the minimum bid necessary to take the right away from the farmer, providing security for the farm. The 500 gallons left unused receives a very low appraisal by the farmer and is quickly auctioned off to a higher-value user of the water. Furthermore, governments can better plan mandatory water conservation plans targeting water reductions to users relative to the number of water securities held by an entity, rather than setting broad goals and standards. For certain securities, there can be auctions within each tradable permit to choose contractors to build infrastructure such as sewage. Companies could bid on which infrastructure building contracts in a reverse auction, where lower demands for compensation would function as higher bids. In such a scenario, developers have to consider the benefit they get from water usage in their housing development to bid on the permit, but also the cost of getting water to these locations. This would disincentivize the urban sprawl that plagues cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, this auction system allows for speculation that would be disastrous for many communities. If a large hedge fund predicts a water shortage in Southern Phoenix, they could buy out permits in that region and appraise the rights at ridiculously high and unrepresentative prices, which the fund can afford given their significant financial resources. If the kind of speculation described above happens on a large scale, this could force thousands of small farmers off their land, resulting in a massive decrease in food supply. To counter this, auctions cannot disregard the importance of the water usage for each party involved in the auction. In Radical Markets, Weyl proposes a system called quadratic voting to quantify the intensity of voters during an election; however, quadratic voting is just as pertinent in water rights auctions as it is in elections to create a fair outcome for society. Instead of bidding on rights directly with money, each dollar could correspond to a number of votes, with the marginal cost increasing for each subsequent vote and the tax applied to the sum of money spent on the votes. This would mean the number of votes gained from a dollar would be the sum of money squared: one vote is worth one dollar, two votes are worth four dollars, and so on. Therefore, the cost of consolidating all of one's votes in one region is very high, since the total cost increases with every vote. In each auction, the bidder with the most votes (a plurality), would get the rights. There would be one chance to buy votes every six months. Quadratic voting would decrease speculation because it would be unwise to place a large number of votes in one region on the off chance a drought happens. This is because the total cost would be astronomically high and the opportunity cost would be even higher since speculators are limited to the number of votes, they purchase at the beginning of six-months, leading them to perhaps miss out on other investments. On the other hand, a farmer whose livelihood depends on a few water rights would spend all their votes on one region, since they have no reason to bid elsewhere.

The combination of quadratic voting and a competitive auction to apportion water rights would lead to the optimal allocation of water usage in Phoenix. The alfalfa mega-farms skirting the borders of Chandler and other suburbs would become efficient and sustainable. The excessive real estate development that doomed Phoenix in 2008 could never occur in the policy proposed since builders would be forced to consider the costs of scarce resources, unlike under prior appropriation. In general, this policy ensures the long-term survival of communities like Chandler in the Southwest.

Soham Mehta, BASIS Chandler


A Lack of Empathy in Sammamish

The affluent suburb of Sammamish, Washington—often ranked among the best places to live in America—is lauded for its friendly, welcoming community. However, when Tent City 4, a traveling encampment serving the homeless populations of nearby cities, announced its plans to move to the parking lot of a local church, the town’s residents expressed vehement opposition to the proposal. Despite Tent City 4’s rigorous vetting process, including mandatory background and drug and alcohol checks, hundreds of community members, a large majority of them wealthy homeowners, asserted their concerns regarding how the addition of a group of homeless people would negatively change the safety and character of their beloved town. A resident declared that the City Council was “disregarding the rights, needs and wants” of Sammamish’s inhabitants by allowing Tent City 4 to operate. Another proclaimed, “Don't let us pay for you.”

When presented with an opportunity to uphold their reputation as a welcoming community, Sammamish’s residents turned their backs on those most in need. In today’s political climate, where Muslims are stereotyped as terrorists and where unevidenced characterizations of foreign immigrants as drug dealers, criminals, or rapists are made by prominent politicians, Sammamish citizens’ move to secure their safety in the presence of difference is neither surprising nor unique. A long-running study conducted by Indiana University, which tested young people on their level of agreement with statements such as “It's not really my problem if others are in trouble and need help”, found that the youth of today’s generation are 40% less empathetic than the previous generation. Increasingly, Americans, as exemplified by Sammamish’s residents, turn inward more and care to help less. They find themselves unengaged and unable to share in others’ pain, sadness, or experiences. Simply, they are unable or unwilling to engage in a natural human impulse: empathizing with others.

People losing or simply refusing to engage in their ability to empathize—a trait that seems inherent to human psychology—appears impossible. However, though humans may always have subliminal reactions to viewing a face contorted in pain, for example, the degree to which they choose to act on those impulses is highly determined by political trends. In the 1970s, as the threat of nuclear war loomed overhead, empathizing with one’s supposed enemies became the trend du jour as political leaders fumbled desperately to prevent war. However, recently, political pundits have taken a new approach: “Why should I care about others when it doesn’t benefit myself?” It has become politically favorable to eschew caring about others in favor of positing a supposed tradeoff between empathy and rationality. Policies and actions aimed toward helping the less fortunate, such as welfare programs, affirmative action, and the acceptances of refugees, are framed as economically or socially damaging. Often, people are told that by showing compassion toward others, they are sacrificing their own well-being, a trade-off that is minimal at best and completely non-existent in most cases. In deciding to protest the presence of a charitable organization that helps the less fortunate, Sammamish’s residents justify their actions by labeling Tent City 4 as personally damaging to their security and property values, despite overwhelming evidence that the organizers of the encampments have taken the necessary precautions to ensure none of the perceived damaging consequences actually occur. Even when presented with an opportunity to help those who are suffering, the community chooses to ignore the empathetic response, which would be to support the less fortunate, and instead turn toward protecting themselves against imagined, slight threats.

Sammamish’s problem empathizing is further exacerbated by its own homogeneity and isolation. In their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces, Sammamish residents rarely interact with people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds than their own. Almost 75% of the city’s residents are white; less than 5% are African-American or Hispanic. Economically, it is even more isolated. The city’s median income is $165,000, almost double the national average, and its average home value is a staggering $933,400, making living in Sammamish impossible for those without a college education or even without a six-figure income. Fundamentally, Sammamish’s inhabitants are unfamiliar with the truth of life outside of the comfortable bubble they live in. Without the opportunity to engage with people of less wealth and privilege than themselves, it is then more difficult to sympathize when faced with understanding the difficulties of those down on their luck. Most often, Sammamish’s citizens approach issues from a position of overwhelming advantage. As representatives of the top 10%, the vast majority have never experienced poverty, housing insecurity, or even financial instability of any kind. Without being reminded of the fact that some people live paycheck to paycheck or have trouble securing a home loan or paying rent, they simply may be unaware or forget that those are problems people face.

Without personal experience, it also becomes easier to believe the media’s framing of those experiencing homelessness as inherently different or inferior. An analysis of 35,000 hours of television and radio programming found that content related to homelessness included the words “derelicts,” “crazy,” “drugs,” and “disease” in almost 46% of programs and only presented an alternative, sympathetic view in 17% of programs. Furthermore, the study found that the media’s representation of homelessness as an issue presented it as episodic, focusing on individual causes such as lack of motivation, rather than a thematic, societal issue that could be attributed to issues such as discrimination and reduced wages. The media’s coverage, especially when presented to those without first-hand experience and who rely on it as their only source of information about homelessness, encodes the homeless as inherently different from the rest of society and as lazy, drug-addicted, and irrational. The totalizing representations, which ignore the structural causes of homeless and instead attribute it to character flaws, paint homeless people as drug-addicted dangers to suburbia and not real people who were simply born into unfortunate situations. The differentiations created between those who are homeless and those who are not obstruct the ability to emphasize by distancing homeless people from the ideal of a person who deserves help or sympathy.

Paradoxically, the only way to reduce stigmatization and reintroduce a politics of empathy is to do that which Sammamish’s residents so dogmatically protested. Living in an isolated haven of homogeneity, with limited exposure to those different and less fortunate and therefore a limited ability to make self-derived conclusions about the character of those people, creates difference between Sammamish’s people and those they otherize: the homeless. To alleviate this social distancing, Sammamish’s citizens must be made to dispel the stereotypes themselves. Through first-hand interaction with people experiencing homelessness in a variety of ways, including service events, community forums, and education in local schools, they can come to see that one totalizing descriptor cannot essentialize a group of people, that people down on their luck are not necessarily less valuable or more lazy, but may simply be down on their luck, and that those experiencing homelessness are really not so different from themselves. By allowing those who were previously distanced to experience that homeless people are not all dangerous, lazy, or drug addicted, stereotypes that were propagated by the media, they can become more empathetic to others’ struggles by envisioning themselves going through the same turmoil and come to reconcile their instinct toward self-preservation with their duty to help those in pain by realizing that homeless people are not such a danger after all.

To build a community where everyone is truly welcome, it is necessary to embrace empathy within policy. It is our duty to help those facing misfortune, even when they may come from different backgrounds than ourselves, and not to turn our backs on them. If we continue to refuse to help and include others just because we are afraid because they are different than ourselves, then we are no proper community at all.

Jenna Yuan, Eastlake High School