All children deserve a quality education that they can use as a launching pad for a successful future. It’s too bad that too many children, particularly kids from poor communities and communities of color, are condemned to mediocre educations simply because of five digits: their zip code.
As a millennial mom and a woman of color, I want our son to fulfill his potential. When my family moved to the United States from the Caribbean in 1985, we lived in a poor, dangerous part of Boston. Gang violence was prevalent in my neighborhood and drug needles could be found in our school yard.
Luckily, several forces kept me from falling into the trap that others in my neighborhood fell into.
First, I had parents who were active in my education.
Second, I attended an academically strong elementary school that benefitted from the voluntary integration of rich and poor kids.
Third, I passed into a rigorous college-preparatory public high school that flourished from the private donations of an illustrious alumni network.
I benefitted from tenets of school choice before school choice was a movement: engaged parents, competition, and accountability.
Unfortunately, many children today are not as fortunate as I was, and the quality of their education suffers from community to community across the country. We see the differences—particularly among students of color. According to federal data, 15 in 20 black and Hispanic students graduate high school compared to 18 in 20 white students. Performance in math among 12th graders is eye-opening, with just 7 percent of black students performing at proficient or above proficient compared to 12 percent of Hispanic students and 32 percent of white students. The gap is smaller for reading proficiency, but still a 29-percentage-point difference between white and black high school seniors and a 21-percent difference between white and Hispanic students.
Poverty may play a more important factor than race in educational success. Poor kids find themselves clustered in largely poor schools. Disparities in education are often blamed on shortfalls in tax revenue and lower levels of spending per child. The argument goes that a lack of funds leaves schools scrambling to buy books, computers, and other fundamental learning tools that rich public schools and private schools enjoy. However, the U.S. is in the top five countries in public education spending with an average of $12,731 per student on secondary education. Yet we rank 10th in math for secondary education and we don’t even land in the top ten for sciences.
In cities where black and Hispanic students are concentrated, per-student spending is often higher than the national average. Look at New York City’s schools that spent $19,818 per student in 2013 and Washington, D.C.’s schools spent the most nationally at $17,953. Yet, academic achievement in New York isn’t much better than national averages and Washington, D.C. schools are dead last.
Families of color, particularly those coming from poor neighborhoods with failing schools, want choice and opportunity for their children. In a poll of over 2,400 black voters in Alabama, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Tennessee, seven in ten voters said they supported giving parents more educational choices in their local school districts.
Charter schools also enjoy support among a majority of black voters surveyed in all four states and more than two thirds of survey participants in Louisiana and Tennessee expressing support.
And there’s evidence that charter schools, for example, are working in closing achievement gaps for students of color and students in poverty. In Boston, public charter middle schools shrank the black-white achievement gap in math by as much as half in a single year. In New York City, black and Hispanic charter school students closed the achievement gap with affluent suburbs like Scarsdale by 86 percent in math and 66 percent in English.
The potential for kids from poor zip codes to become the next inventors, accountants, or librarians should not be limited because there is just one school in their neighborhood and it’s failing. Millennial parents and parents of color want the same for their children and it’s incumbent on us to ensure that school choice remains an option for all kids.
Catch Patrice Lee on a recent appearance for PBS: On The Contrary