If you're a public-school student, your chances in life may be largely dependent on where you live -- not just which country, not just which state, but which little bureaucratic zone.
In San Jose, Calif., many parents want to get their kids in Fremont Union schools because they're so much better than neighboring schools. So parents sometimes cheat to get their kids in. At least cheating is what local officials call it. Steve Rowley, district superintendent, said, "We have maybe hundreds of kids who are here illegally, under false pretenses."
Illegally. False pretenses. Sounds like the kids are criminals. All they're doing is trying to get a good public-school education. Don't the public schools' defenders insist all children have a right to a good public-school education?
Inspector John Lozano goes door to door to check if kids really live where they say they do.
At one house, a mother and daughter answer the door, so Lozano sees that the daughter is there, but he still tells them that he needs to look inside the house to make sure. The school district police can go into your daughter's bedroom, even go through drawers and closets. "Well," he said, "we have a computer, we have some 'Seventeen' magazines. We have pictures of the student and her friends on the wall."
So she passed the inspection.
But then he went to an address listed by Esterlita Tapang, whose grandson attends a Fremont Union high school. He told the man who answered the door, "She said she lives here and her grandson is going to live here so he can go to the high school." The man shook his head and said she didn't live there. "Caught," Lozano told us. "She's definitely caught!"
Granted, Tapang broke the rules. The rules said her grandson, because of where he lived, wasn't entitled to the quality education Fremont Union schools provide. But which is worse: a system that traps students in bad schools, or a grandmother who lies to save her grandson from being denied a decent education? I asked her, "Isn't it creepy that they force you to go to the black market to get your kid a better education?"
She thought it was. "I was crying in front of this 14-year-old," said the grandmother. "Why can't they just let parents get in the school of their choice?"
Why can't they? Changing schools can change a child's life. In Florida, Patty Bower's kids were stuck in a school that wasn't teaching them. But then they got vouchers, which let them attend a private school that works with kids who have special needs.
"Joey has been brought up four grade levels in reading," Bowers said. "He's gone from C's, and D's to being an honor roll student." But the Florida Supreme Court this month killed a similar choice program, and Patty fears her kids will soon be forced back into public school. "If they take the McKay scholarship away, I don't think -- I'm sorry. I don't think Joey will finish school."
Why can't she choose her child's school? Most countries that beat America on international tests give their students that choice. In Belgium, the government spends less than American schools do on each student, but the money is attached to the kids. So they can go wherever they want -- to a state-run school, a Montessori school, or even a religious school.
"I wouldn't send my child to an American public school," said Maria Loth. "Not even for a million dollars."
Her son lives in Belgium now, but when he was 6, his family lived in America. "In America, I had to beg, please, please give me good school for my child. And here in Belgium, they're all over the place."
That's right. In public education, our land of the free is now a bunch of local fiefs, where petty-bureaucrats-turned-lords-of-the-manor decide whether you can get a decent education, and parents must go to them, begging for their children's future. Meanwhile, in Belgium and much of the rest of the world, students and their parents have the freedom to choose their schools -- and the opportunity that comes with that freedom.