Is there school choice in New York City? It depends whom you ask.

Ask in Harlem, and members of Harlem Parents United, a group organized by charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, might tell you that there is: They have all chosen charter schools for their children and are aggressively pushing the neighborhood’s families to have even more options. They have allies in Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who count increasing school choice as a cornerstone of their reforms.

But ask a high school student who wants to change schools, and you might get another answer entirely. According to an article in the New York Post, ninth grader Kimselle Castanos said she asked the Department of Education for a transfer dozens of times but didn’t get one until she was assaulted by students from another school in the building. The DOE thinks the Post got some major facts wrong, such as how many times Kimselle e-mailed the chancellor, officials told me today. But even if it did, the real story remains that in a system that boasts about the choices open to students, Kimselle and her family felt stuck in a school that wasn’t right for her.

I heard from countless parents, students, and advocates desperately seeking school transfers when I worked at Insideschools, through the hotline run by parent organization Advocates for Children. Callers reported that their transfer requests, particularly at the high school level, had been denied even though they had compelling reasons for seeking them. Those calls continue to pour in, my former colleague Pamela Wheaton, Insideschools’ executive director, told me today.

“For whatever reason, it has become increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to get a transfer to another regular high school,” Wheaton said.

The decline in transfers coincided with a 2003 change in how the DOE handles high school enrollment. Before then, principals could mutually agree to release and accept a student. But that year, the DOE centralized high school enrollment, and principals no longer had discretion to accept transfers themselves. Since then, high school students have been permitted to change schools only in a limited number of circumstances: if their school is failing under either the city’s or the state’s accountability systems (only 13 of the city’s 500-plus high schools are eligible); if their commute takes longer than 1.5 hours, if a doctor says a transfer is medically necessary, or if staying in the school puts a student in danger.

Limiting the reasons for which transfers are granted is educationally sound, said Andy Jacob, a DOE spokesman. ”It wouldn’t be practical and it wouldn’t be beneficial for a student’s education to change schools every single year,” he said.

But a policy designed to keep students in their original school isn’t always in students’ best interests, Wheaton said. A student claiming she deosn’t feel safe in her school can’t get a transfer approved without providing the DOE with an official police report documenting an incident. Kimselle Castanos was finally able to furnish a report only after she was assaulted inside her school building.

“That’s a huge problem with the DOE. Unless you’re actually assaulted, it’s basically impossible to get a safety transfer,” Wheaton said. “It’s kind of a Catch-22. If you’re feeling threatened, that’s not enough.”

Students who enter a high school only to find it doesn’t offer what they need — picture a a student at a small high school who tires of the limited course offerings — are also trapped. One escape route is participating in the high school admissions process all over again, which all ninth graders are allowed to do.

“But not everybody can tell in the first two months of ninth grade that a school isn’t right for them,” Wheaton said.

Another option for some students is to enroll at one of the DOE’s transfer high schools, which serve teens who have not been successful at their original schools.

DOE officials say no regulation exists to prevent high school students from trying to transfer even if their reasons aren’t typically accepted. “You can walk into any Borough Enrollment Office and apply for a transfer for any reason,” said Jacob. “But relatively speaking there are not a lot of transfers” for reasons other than safety and accountability, he said.

So has school choice increased under Klein’s leadership?

Absolutely, Jacob said. He called the high school application process “the best example of school choice in the city”: “You can apply to any school in the city. Not only that, but there are many more schools to choose from.” More than 200 new high schools have opened since 2002.

Wheaton said the situation is more complicated.

“There are more options at the entry level,” she said, noting that the number of high schools, transfer schools, and charter schools have all increased, and that this year’s new kindergarten enrollment process at least allows families to apply to schools outside of their zone. “But there is not increased choice if you’re in a school and want a transfer.”