Five degrees of separation — a changing American anomaly

Editor’s note: Gloria Romero is a former Democratic senator from California and the California director of Democrats for Education Reform. She serves on the board of the American Center for School Choice. Peter H. Hanley is the center’s executive director.

Gloria Romero

Only in education have we empowered strangers and geography rather than parents to make choices as to what is best for children. Essentially, parents and children are tied to the land — much like peasants under feudalism. Five digits, known as ZIP code, continue to allocate and segregate students. We use handy phrases like “neighborhood schools” and “local control.” But we don’t dare try that in housing, or healthcare, or places of worship. Racial discrimination was barred long ago, freeing us to live in any neighborhood. It’s unthinkable that a local health department official could look at your address and assign your child to a doctor or dentist. You are free to worship at the church or temple of your choice.

Yet in American education, someone in your local school district, who does not know you or your child, orders you each fall to send the child to a school based on these five digits regardless of whether its programs fit your child’s and family’s needs or delivers strong academic outcomes.

The best thing about the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is that it opened our eyes — real data revealing a widening achievement gap for students of minority and low-income parents. We also learned that, too often, bargained contracts give highly effective teachers the choice to “opt-out” of schools where they are most needed. Further, many charter and independent schools have demonstrated that children in poverty can perform at high academic levels.

But, the times they are a changin’!

Gradually, ZIP code is being challenged and replaced with choice. Forty states have authorized public charter schools, which operate without many of the bureaucratic requirements of traditional schools, but with high accountability expectations. Between 1993 and 2007, the percent of families who were able to choose their child’s school, either within the public school system or at private schools, has increased from 20 percent to 27 percent.

Progress, however, has been uneven as the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) found that families with low incomes, composed of a single parent or of parents with only a high school diploma or less, and Latino families have not been increasing their ability to make educational choices.

This year, 42 states have introduced legislation, most targeted for the underserved, to create or expand school vouchers or tax credit scholarship programs. The latter allow businesses and individuals to receive a tax credit for a donation to a nonprofit organization that in turn provides scholarship money, mostly to low-income families. Already this year, 12 states and the District of Columbia enacted programs to permit parents to choose schools, including private schools, which best serve their children. Moreover, 15 states have introduced legislation modeled on California’s landmark Parent Trigger Act, which empowers parents to force change in persistently underperforming public schools.

NCES also found that parents who are “very satisfied” with multiple aspects of their children’s school rose dramatically as their ability to exercise choice grew. Data consistently shows at least a 10-percentage point difference for those that had public school choice and a 25-point difference for those that had private school choice over parents that did not have choice.

Americans value freedom and like choices in their lives, so these trends are not surprising. Indeed, some parents are willing to be arrested and even go to jail for trying to enroll their children in schools which they know can better serve their children. Parents will challenge ZIP code controls, sign petitions, and form turnaround movements when their “neighborhood” school is chronically failing. Yet opposition to expanding parental choice to all schools — including private schools — persists. These schools, especially religious schools, have served urban communities for decades, but have been closing at alarming rates. Aside from the strong academic credentials of most of these schools, a recent Notre Dame Law School analysis found that in Chicago “the presence of a Catholic school in a police beat appears to suppress crime.”

America needs more good schools, traditional public, charter, and private, which serve families well. We need an honest and forthright debate over parental responsibilities and choice in public education, especially whether five digits should continue to be the most powerful five degrees of separation from the American Dream. Whether it’s Johnny or Juanita, it’s time to make parents the architects of their children’s future.