School Choice: For All but the Poor

School choice offers a solution to this unfair reality where the rich are able to choose their school and the poor are stuck by law in a failing system.

In my urban school district, many students are breaking the law and have no idea. These kids speak about it candidly, unaware that it’s a crime.

A few years ago, a couple in Pennsylvania faced prison time for doing just this: trying to choose the best school and provide their daughter with the best education available, an assumed privilege for the affluent. The couple lied on school documents to send their daughter to a school outside of the district to which their daughter was assigned because the current system did not allow them to do it legally.

Opponents of school choice argue, perhaps above all else, that school choice will benefit the rich and hurt the poor; in reality, in our current system, suburban districts compete for students, and the poor are trapped by the law. They have no choice.

I hear the conversation every year. A student of mine or their parents are unsatisfied with their neighborhood school for one reason or another; the student is struggling socially, another school is better academically, or a different school has a sport that the current one doesn’t. Never is it a flippant choice. Unfortunately, the student's family doesn't have the resources to move or send their child to a private school. Instead, they write an aunt’s address on school paperwork or live with their grandparents in order to attend another district.

Affluent families are able to move districts and pay higher property taxes to fund better education, while the poor are stuck by law in failing neighborhood schools.

Conversely, with the capital that allows for ease of movement, affluent families are not resigned to such practices. They can either send their child to a private school or, if the scenario warrants it, move to another neighborhood. Even before a student struggles, most families move to a town or area that is known for good schools, often with housing prices that effectively close it off to the poor. This mobility creates an artificial competition among affluent districts—holding them accountable to quality education—that poorer districts lack.

The Consequences of Limiting Choice

It is a legal stranglehold not unlike redlining, discriminatory housing policies of the past that both subsidized the construction of homes in suburban neighborhoods and denied loans to African-Americans. These laws effectively criminalized the accumulation of wealth through property for African-Americans and roped them into poor neighborhoods. Our system of school assignment is a contemporary extension of such practices. Affluent families are able to move districts and pay higher property taxes to fund better education, while the poor are stuck by law in failing neighborhood schools.

The statistics behind these injustices are well known. In my home state of Wisconsin, 93 percent of white students earn diplomas on time compared to only 54.7 percent of African-Americans. Reading rates, math proficiency, and dropout rates show similar disparities. Discipline data works in reverse, with African-Americans receiving expulsions and suspensions at a far higher rate; only accounting for 15 percent of the student population, African-Americans make up 31 percent of school arrests.

Break Down the Barriers

These barriers have become a felt injustice, and school choice, a potential solution, has earned the support of the African-American community.

School choice offers a solution to this unfair reality where the rich are able to choose their school and the poor are stuck by law in a failing system. In 2016, the NAACP voted on a moratorium against charter schools, and over 160 black education reformers wrote an open letter in opposition to the declaration. They wrote: “[F]or many urban Black families, charter schools are making it possible to do what affluent families have long been able to to do: rescue their children from failing schools.”

School choice would remove the necessity to move districts in order to change schools—and thereby the financial barrier—so that it is easier for any student to seek out the best education regardless of socioeconomic status. These barriers have become a felt injustice, and school choice, a potential solution, has earned the support of the African-American community.

While its proponents have been called radicals hoping to deceptively advance God’s kingdom, school choice is a rather simple idea. Many Americans already have the privilege to choose schools and provide their children with the best option available. A system of school choice like vouchers would just make it easy, legal, and accessible to everyone.

Further Reading

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