I’m a proud advocate for school choice and have been for over a decade now. Many people think “school choice” means anti-public school or anti-teacher unions. Certainly everyone has their own opinions on those things, but the school choice movement isn’t about being “anti-public education” - it’s about being pro-opportunity. It is the belief that parents know best what their children need in education and that they should have access to a variety of options outside their geographically mandated public school. Believing in school choice means believing that no child’s zip code should determine their opportunities.
But let me back up - and forgive me if you’ve heard my story before. I believe that the more people I can reach with this explanation, the more support our children will receive.
As a young mother in my early 30s I was given the opportunity to become the director of an outreach program for inner city youth. We had a wonderful center that offered free tutoring, mentoring and internet access to students of our community - a community that was nearly 90% African-American and where the average income was a little over $15K a year. At the time I was a dedicated Democratic voter, like most black people in America. I would have considered myself quite liberal and on education I was always in support of our unions and public schools. I didn’t know much about school choice except that it was some half-baked scheme to suck more money out of public education - money our students desperately needed.
My position gave me the opportunity to see inside many of our city’s schools. A lot of our kids were being raised by grandparents and I often acted as an advocate for those grandparents as they were trying to navigate the school system, parent-teacher meetings and disciplinary procedures. What I saw in our schools was devastating. Dilapidated buildings, burned out teachers, security issues, violence, inadequate materials and an administrative system that had succumbed to over-regulation and corruption. It was frightening, and no one seemed to know what to do about it. In a city where the average income was so low, moving to a better district was not an option for most families.
Then the charter school movement came to our state, and while I was initially skeptical I was overwhelmed by the number of parents and grandparents I was seeing who were desperate to get their child into one. They didn’t want to hear excuses about needing more money. They were constantly being told to wait, don’t leave public school, don’t damage their income structure by pulling their kids out. Just be patient. But who wants their child to be the guinea pig while the so-called professionals figure out how to fix problems that never seem to get fixed, no matter how much money was thrown at the them? Not these people.
One of the new charter schools rented our facility to hold their student lottery. This particular school had openings for 450 students. There were over 1,000 applicants.
The night of the lottery came and parents and grandparents showed up eagerly. The drawing took about an hour. That hour changed everything for me.
There were parents who were so excited their students were picked for the new school they fell to their knees to thank God in front of everyone. Many were celebrating, jumping up and down. Most were praising Jesus. The passionate reaction told me so much more than I knew about just how bad things had become in our schools.
But what moved me the most…what broke me, really…was an elderly woman who came to find me after most of the people had filed out. I recognized her as the grandmother of one my program kids. She’d been crying. She touched my arm and weakly said, “Ms. Kira, is there any way you can talk to someone and get my boy on the list? This was our last chance. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have to get him out of our school but this was our last chance. Please. Isn’t there anything you can do? I’ll do anything”.
I’ve told this story 100 times and 100 times I’ve choked up recounting it. I’ll never forget how helpless she looked, and how helpless I felt. I couldn’t seem to make her understand that I was just the janitor, basically. I had nothing to do with the charter school, I was just lending them space for a night. She wouldn’t hear it. She couldn’t hear it.
In that moment I suddenly had a sense of how unjust it was that this woman’s only option for her struggling grandchild was to cross her fingers and hope he won a lottery so he could go to a better school. If the government told me I was only allowed to shop at one grocery store in my neighborhood no matter what taxes I paid or what needs I had I would be livid. So would we all. Why then did we think it was acceptable for the government to impose such geographical limitations on our children? Why on earth should this woman not be allowed to put her child in a different, safer school with better opportunities in a different area?
It was an injustice I could no longer ignore. Since that day, I have advocated passionately for access to quality education regardless of geography. I have found that this issue affects poorer minority communities - particularly the black community- disproportionately. I believe this is an issue of civil rights, that no one should be held back from a good education just because of who they are. We can argue all we want about money and how much a school needs to properly educate, but in the meantime our students are falling behind.
I cannot agree to letting a nameless, faceless bureaucracy decide what and where is the best education for my child or any child in my community. There is no good reason why tax dollars can’t follow the child. Every argument I hear against it is made in defense of the teachers or the buildings or the bureaucracy. Few involve the children.
So, in honor of National School Choice Week I invite you to learn more about school choice - what it is and what it isn’t, who it prioritizes and who it doesn’t. It isn’t about ending public schools. I now live in a place with amazing public schools filled with dedicated, talented teachers; but we don’t all get so lucky in this country.
Justice is within our grasp. It simply demands the right to choose.