School choice fail?

The News & Observer reprinted a New York Times op-ed by Natalie Hopkinson, resident of a “leafy, majority-black neighborhood in Washington [D.C.]” and mother to an 11-year-old son.  Ms. Hopkinson complains that school choice failed her neighborhood because failing neighborhood schools were closed by city leaders.  She laments the loss of neighborhood schools in majority-black areas of D.C.

In the process of making this argument, however, she actually makes a pretty good case for school choice.  She writes,

But I’ve come to realize that this brand of school reform is a great deal only if you live in a wealthy neighborhood. You buy a house, and access to a good school comes with it. Whether you choose to enroll there or not, the public investment in neighborhood schools only helps your property values.

Indeed, school choice is a foil against this.  Done right, school choice allows families who live in low and middle class neighborhoods to have access to good schools in wealthy neighborhoods.  She continues,

For the rest of us, it’s a cynical game. There aren’t enough slots in the best neighborhood and charter schools. So even for those of us lucky ones with cars and school-data spreadsheets, our options are mediocre at best.

As expected, school choice allowed parents to flock to the “best neighborhood and charter schools.” The fact that parents, such as Ms. Hopkinson, have “mediocre” options suggest a need to increase the supply of high-quality schools, not scrap a plan that encourages parents to do what comes naturally – choose the schools that best meet the needs of their children.

I particularly liked this passage:

Earlier this year, when we were searching for a middle school for my son – 11 is a vulnerable age for anyone – our public options were even grimmer. I could have sent him to one of the newly consolidated kindergarten-to-eighth-grade campuses in my neighborhood, with low test scores and no algebra or foreign languages. We could enter a lottery for a spot in another charter or out-of-boundary middle school, competing against families all over the city.

I understand that Ms. Hopkinson’s choices are not guaranteed or convenient, but school choice has given her a great opportunity.  Her child was not forced (via traditional student assignment arrangements) to attend the undesirable school in her neighborhood.  What a luxury!

Terry Stoops / Vice President for Research and Director of Education Studies

Terry Stoops is the Vice President for Research and Director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the Locke Foundation, he worked as the progra...

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