School Choice: The Civil Rights Movement of Our Time
Few things matter more to parents than ensuring their children have a high quality education that equips them with the tools and experiences necessary to succeed. Lower income parents are keenly aware that an education may be the only way for their children to overcome a lifetime of low-wage, dead-end jobs. And, given that functional illiteracy plagues more than 85% of all juveniles in the criminal justice system, school systems that fail to equip children with basic reading skills rob them of a lifetime of opportunity.
Virginia Walden Ford recognized that her son’s school was contributing to what she worried would be a precarious future. A single mother living in a neighborhood flanked by failing schools, she refused to lose him to the streets. With a mother’s might, she forged a movement to broaden educational opportunity for lower income families in Washington D.C. That fortitude was key to Congress eventually authorizing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. As a result, thousands of children have been afforded the opportunity to attend private schools that better meet their needs.
Every child deserves that chance. Yet Texas remains one of the worst states in the country for parent empowerment, providing among the fewest educational options for families. Public school choice through open enrollment is severely limited. Unlike in 38 other states, Texas families must pay tuition to attend a neighboring school district. While charter schools continue to thrive, the wait lists exceed 140,000 children. And, unlike the majority of states, including three of our neighbors, private school choice is non-existent in Texas.
Depriving families of options deprives many children of a needed lifeline. Consider the story of Denisha Merriweather. Denisha grew up in a crime ridden neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida. She struggled in school, failing third grade twice. Her mother and brother both dropped out of school before graduating, and many teachers expected the same for her. She hated school, was suspended often, and received mostly D’s and F’s. But then things changed. Denisha received a scholarship to attend a private school through Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. She credits that opportunity for altering her life trajectory. She went on to earn her Master’s degree and work at the U.S. Department of Education. Today, she works as an advocate for children and families seeking educational opportunity.
More than 100,000 students in Florida today participate in the tax credit scholarship program that helped Denisha. Not only have those children benefitted, but public school performance has soared. Every child is different and no one school or one school system can serve every need. When a child can access a school that works best for him or her, everyone wins. Families in Texas, just like families in Washington D.C. and Florida, deserve no less.
In Texas, parents in the middle and high income brackets can afford to make high quality educational choices for their children. It is working class and poor parents that are denied the ability to reject poorly performing schools and take advantage of high quality educational institutions simply because they have a religious affiliation. The Supreme Court, in its landmark decision Espinoza vs Montana Dept. of Revenue, said it best; “The Supreme law of the land condemns discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them. They are members of the community too, and their exclusion from the scholarship program here is odious to our Constitution and cannot stand.”
These sacred words have become the preamble of our struggle, defining the moment of freedom for this time in American history. It is time for Texas to give poor and working class families the assistance they need to send their children to the school of their choice.
Richard Johnson III, Ed.D., is the director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Booker T. Washington Initiative which examines the effects of public policy on African-American communities. Denisha Merriweather is Director of Family Engagement at the American Federation for Children in Washington D.C.