Lane Wright: School Choice Is a Great Thing. Now, Parents Need Better Choices — and More of Them
When the phone call came two weeks ago, I initially thought it might be another spam call. The number was unfamiliar, but I decided to answer anyway.
"Hello, is this Mr. Wright?"
"Yes, this is Lane."
"Hi. I’m calling from the School of Arts and Sciences at the Centre location. I’m contacting you to inform you that your son has been accepted to our school for the upcoming fall. Can you confirm that he will be 5 years old before the start of the school year?"
"Yes, I can."
As the conversation continued, I couldn’t help but feel fortunate. Arts and Sciences is renowned as the top charter school in Tallahassee, as indicated by the state report card. It has received accolades from the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Charter School Conference, and the U.S. Department of Education. A friend whose children attend the school speaks highly of it. Additionally, it has received positive reviews online and has a strong rating from GreatSchools.org.
For years, I’ve heard about the limited number of spots available at the School of Arts and Sciences and the dishearteningly low chances of admission.
"Everyone applies to the School of Arts and Sciences, thinking they’ll get in," a friend had said. "But I’m realistic. I’m exploring other options."
I’ve never been much of a risk-taker. I don’t buy scratch-off tickets here in Florida, but now I understand what it feels like to win the lottery. I am one of the lucky ones.
Not only will my oldest child attend this prestigious school, but his two younger sisters will also have the opportunity.
However, I can’t help but empathize with the families that didn’t get in, especially those who desperately needed a better option, perhaps even more than we did.
A Good Home in a Not-So-Good School Zone
Five years ago, we purchased our home at a reasonable price in a decent neighborhood on the northern edge of Tallahassee’s south side, close to downtown. It’s the type of place where people take pride in their well-maintained lawns and allow various vibrant flowers, such as azaleas and crape myrtles, to bloom in pink and white glory. There’s even a charming park just three houses away, featuring a gazebo and a sprawling ancient oak tree as its centerpiece.
But not everything here resembles the idealized suburban setting depicted in "Leave It to Beaver."
Our house is only a three-minute walk away from two apartment complexes, one of which is in a rather dilapidated state, and the nearby streets are lined with closely situated duplexes. There is barely enough room for cement parking pads, with no green lawns in sight, just tightly packed vehicles tightly squeezed between the houses.
When we purchased our home, our focus was on what we could afford and how much we liked the well-maintained houses in the area, as well as the proximity to downtown. We also appreciated the diversity, both racially and economically, within the neighborhood and hoped that our children wouldn’t be the only black children at the nearby playground.
We didn’t pay much attention to the fact that our children would be assigned to some of the lower-performing schools in the city. We had considered nicer neighborhoods, but the houses there were beyond our comfort zone in terms of affordability.
At the time we moved in, our oldest child was just a baby, so we didn’t immediately notice the lack of families with young children in our immediate vicinity. For the most part, the individuals who remained in this school zone were either childless or, like us, unable to afford a better area.
Florida is often hailed as a leader in offering choices for education. In Tallahassee, we have a multitude of options, including several charter schools, magnet programs, and an open-enrollment system that allows you to attend any public school you’re not zoned for, as long as there is space available and you can arrange transportation. However, the top schools usually have limited availability.
But upon closer examination, it becomes evident that public charter schools serving predominantly minority and economically disadvantaged students face similar challenges as traditional public schools catering to similar student demographics. The magnet and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs seem to contribute to the segregation between black and white students, as well as between affluent and underprivileged students within the same school. ("The IB students hardly interact with the general student population," a friend informed me.)
It also evokes a sense of conflict within me.
On one hand, the idea of not sending our children to the school assigned to our neighborhood feels like we would be neglecting the needs of the kids who have no other options. However, as a father, I believe it is my foremost responsibility to provide the best opportunities for my own children. It is true that removing my black children from a predominantly black school will not directly address the racial dynamics or diminish the diversity of the school. Nevertheless, our family belongs to the middle-class bracket and we can afford to travel out West to visit our grandparents every year or two. My kids have the privilege of having two parents with college education and participating in community sports. Thus, our decision to leave does have an impact on the social and economic composition of the school.
Yet, the solution should not be to compel those who have choices to relinquish them, or to expect fortunate individuals like myself to sacrifice their own children due to guilt.
The solution lies in having better alternatives, and a greater number of them.
It is not acceptable that there are only a few highly-performing schools in each district, or that students from disadvantaged areas in this country are typically relegated to schools with limited resources, ineffective teachers, and low standards.
However, it is also incorrect to simply blame poverty and conclude that overcoming it is impossible. While poverty does have an impact, there are urban districts like Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Hillsborough County that outperform other urban districts and experience significant growth. Certain charter school networks such as Achievement First, KIPP, and Uncommon are successfully helping more students from low-income families pass state exams and attend college, where others have failed.
It is within our reach to improve our schools. It is possible to assist children in overcoming the obstacles posed by poverty. These are challenges that we can solve. Yet, if we fail to do so, I am apprehensive that our luck will eventually run out. This concern extends beyond just my own children, but to all of us.
My family is fortunate. We have won a lottery that brings lifelong benefits. We received that phone call which filled us with hope. I desire for every parent to experience a phone call like that.
Lane Wright is an editor at Education Post, with a focus on narrating stories that help families comprehend the performance of their schools, how they can be improved, and the role of educational policies. He has a background in journalism and previously served as a press secretary to Florida Gov. Rick Scott.