Why school choice is compelling for kids, parents

OPINION - Your zip code and your income may determine where you live...but they shouldn't determine your child's future...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

When I came to New York City in the mid-90s, I moved into the cheapest apartment I could afford in the nicest neighborhood I could find. That place was a first-floor front studio on 94th street just off of Central Park. It was a gorgeous block, but I lived in its lone eyesore of a building. Twice a week I was awakened by the clash of garbage cans being grows against my outside windows. In the winter, I often heated the place with my open stove. And if anything broke, it took forever to get it fixed.

I paid about three-fourths of what I made every month to live in that apartment, and my landlord knew that. And because of this, our relationship was uneasy. I only pushed so hard to get things fixed because there was no way I could afford to move. She only gave me enough service to make it barely livable. And we both knew there were hundreds more recent college grads like me ready to suffer the same relationship if I decided to head back home.

Unfortunately, my relationship with my old landlord is exactly analogous to the relationship most low-income parents and children, particularly in cities, have with their neighborhood schools and school districts. The quality of instruction is poor. Students are far more likely to be taught by a teacher who is out of subject specialization than in the suburbs. The school environment is troubled and/or not conducive to learning. And, most importantly, they’re stuck with one another just like my old landlord and I were; the school only giving what it must, and the family desperate to extract more for their child’s education.

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Fortunately for me, I got a new job one day and I moved to a better apartment. For most low-income parents, however, moving to a better “building,” or a school district in this case, just isn’t an option.

If you have money or influence in America, you don’t even blink when your local school doesn’t deliver. You know you can “move” to a private school or another school district, and the local school does too. So if it’s good enough for the wealthiest and most influential among us, why shouldn’t we give low-income families in southwest Baltimore, or Newark, or Chicago the same options.

This is a magic moment in America, where it appears our leaders care a great deal about what happens in our public schools, with an emphasis on our schools in our large cities. And while we’re racing to the top, or changing other education policies that help us recruit, reward, and retain great teachers, there is one thing they can do that will help families, and help them today. What is it? They can take a lesson from my old landlord and I—and give parents a choice. Your zip code and your income may determine where you live…but they shouldn’t determine your child’s future.