One Starfish at a Time – Anthony’s School Choice Story

As I travel around the country advocating for greater school choice opportunities for all children, I often use the well-known starfish parable as a way to help others envision the purpose of choice.

A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!” 

— Adapted from The Star Thrower
by Loren C. Eiseley

At a recent event in Oklahoma City, a group of the state’s most prominent business leaders, elected officials, activists and education coalition members came together to celebrate the advancement of school choice and to hear the stories of those personally impacted by school choice opportunities.

One of the most moving stories came from a young man from the inner city of Philadelphia.  Anthony lived in a gang-infested neighborhood and was a known troublemaker in his failing public school.  Anthony’s mom, a single mother, knew that his only chance of escaping the pitfalls that awaited a young African American male growing up in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country, was to escape his public school. A school that was unable to manage the violence and gangs or provide the basic educational standards set forth by the public school system.

Anthony was one of the starfish stranded with little hope. Thankfully, with assistance from the Philadelphia Children’s Scholarship Fund, his mother was able to send him to a private school that she could afford, giving Anthony the chance to succeed. Though the family made many sacrifices to afford tuition, Philadelphia’s school choice program ensured his chance to graduate from high school and go on to Temple University as the first member of his family to attend and graduate from college. Now, Anthony owns a growing childcare company with several locations throughout Philadelphia.

In his closing, Anthony noted that the same cousins he grew up with in his North Philadelphia neighborhood who were not granted similar school choice opportunities, now face a life of incarceration, struggling to make ends meet, and one was even murdered.  That scholarship, that choice given to his mother for a better school, was the “toss back into the sea” that has made all the difference in Anthony’s life.

This event was not particularly unique. No matter where we host events throughout the country, we meet parents and children with their own stories of the impact school choice had on their lives. As part of America’s social contract, most people agree, irrespective of their political ideology, that every child deserves a chance to have the best education possible, regardless of who their parents are, what zip code they live in, the color of their skin, or their gifts or disabilities. Much like the starfish lining the beach, we have millions of children throughout our country waiting for someone to save them from their failing schools. Many are impoverished, thus zoned for some of the worst school districts in the country. Many have parents or caretakers that know their child’s school is failing to meet their needs or provide the educational environment that best suits their child. They too are waiting for someone to give them a choice and their child a chance to reach their fullest potential and swim successfully into the ocean of life.