I’ve been advocating for school choice for more than 20 years. In that time I have seen families and entire communities change because their children gained access to K-12 schools that nurtured them educationally. Many of the families I served had never had that kind of access to quality education and thus no chance of advancing on to college.
But today legions of parents still feel they are trapped by their ZIP code, which forces them to send their children to schools that do not give them the education they deserve. The crisis in K-12 education has hurt poor and working-class parents immensely. Advocates must be the voice for the voiceless and give greater choices to parents whose children are trapped in failing schools.
School choice is the answer! School choice programs offer children an opportunity to escape schools that are not meeting their needs — schools that are failing them and their families. It is the civil rights issue of our day.
In the late 1990s children in Washington, D.C.’s public schools were failing at an extremely high rate. The opening of public charter schools provided some options, but those of us working with families in the communities were aware that this was not enough. In 2004, with the implementation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, we began to see excitement in children entering schools where they were finally enrolled in educational environments that served them well.
I have witnessed DCOSP students receive advanced degrees, work internationally, be the first in their family to attend college. These students are now passing the torch to the students behind them who are benefiting and succeeding from school choice programs. It’s wonderful to talk with these young people and remember my initial conversations with them, where they were feeling hopeless and helpless about their future.
As for my own story, raising children as a single mother in the inner city, life was scary. There was tremendous trepidation about where our family’s journey would take us, much less end. Through strong determination and drive, my older children worked their way through difficult educational environments in D.C. public schools. But my youngest child struggled in a school that simply could not meet his needs.
It is devastating to watch helplessly as your child fails, to realize that he is headed toward a bleak future. Luckily, my youngest received a scholarship to attend a private school. And because of that, he received the tools he needed to be successful.
By strengthening K-12 education, more children of color are choosing to attend college and more are excelling. I am extremely delighted to see students able to continue their journey after having received a quality education through participating in school choice programs.
There have been many committed warriors in the fight for school choice, from Howard Fuller and Polly Williams in Milwaukee, to D.C. figures such as Kevin Chavous and Rod Paige. They continue to stand on the front lines and to inspire countless parents and supporters to expand school choice and the educational opportunities it brings.
In August 2012 Condoleezza Rice asked rhetorically, “Today, when I can look at your ZIP code and I can tell whether you’re going to get a good education, can I honestly say it does not matter where you came from, it matters where you are going?” She went on to say: “This is the civil rights issue of our day.”
We must ensure that all American children, no matter where they live, have the opportunity to receive an outstanding education. School choice is the most important civil rights cause in America today — not just for moral reasons, and not just for the sake of the children needlessly denied a chance to reach their potential. Without an educated citizenry, our country’s future is in jeopardy.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times.