30 Years of Reform, and Urban Schools Still Struggle

My school choice journey began in 1975, although I didn’t know it at the time.  My middleclass parents bought their first home in the North Rosedale Park neighborhood of northwest Detroit in 1969.  When it came time for me to start kindergarten, they were not sure that the neighborhood school was the best place for me.  They had talked to neighbors for years about which schools they were sending their children to and were excited to learn about a Montessori school, operated by Detroit Public Schools, where students from the area might attend if their names were chosen in a lottery. The decision to enter my name into the lottery was not made lightly. My parents were not ‘alternative education’ kind of people.  Dad is an engineer by training and mom had been a public-school teacher for years before I was born. But, they believed strongly that the local school was not the place for me.

And so, in 1975, my Dad stood in line for 24-hours with a lawn chair (porta johns conveniently located by the line of parents), hoping that my name would be chosen in the lottery. I was picked!  I started kindergarten at Detroit Open School in the fall of 1975 and thrived during my time there through the fourth grade. My love of reading and writing was nurtured, and I had a diverse group of friends from all over the city.

However, as the recession hit and Detroit’s downturn became more and more steep, my parents reluctantly realized that to fulfill their dreams for our education, we would need to leave Detroit for the suburbs. We moved to Farmington Hills and enrolled in Farmington Public Schools, where I started Fifth Grade.

My parents had the ability to make that choice – to move to an area they determined the schools were better for my younger brother and me.

Fast forward thirty-some years, and my husband and I found ourselves in a similar situation. In 2011, I started touring a variety of schools to determine which one would be the best for our bright five-year old. Sadly, the neighborhood school near our Grand Rapids home did not have the kind of test scores that instilled confidence. We were faced with the agony of our urban district not having enough quality options.  We entered our daughter into three lotteries (including two for theme-schools that are part of Grand Rapids Public), and I picked up an application for a nearby Christian school.  She was selected in two of the lotteries. We chose to enroll her in a charter school where she has done well for the past six years.

I will be the first to applaud the many strides that GRPS has made in recent years. We may yet send our daughters to a GRPS high school. But, how many children have fallen through the cracks of failing public schools in the past thirty years? How long must families be told to “Wait while we fix it?” in big city districts? Why must only families that don’t have the means to move (or pay for private school) keep waiting for quality education? How many children have not fulfilled their promise while trapped in a failing school? The answer is: too many.

School choice provides children access to a quality education today. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Not in a decade. Today.