School Choice' Is Great, as Long as We Don't Forget the Value of a Great Neighborhood School

Someone asked me recently: “Don’t you agree that inner-city parents of color should have the same opportunities for choice as wealthy suburban parents?” Yes, yes I do. But I think what I have in mind is not necessarily what my questioner had in mind. My questioner, like many choice proponents, tends to think first about creating new options, like innovative charter schools. And that’s fine. However, many families who need choice the most have the least opportunity to exercise it. It wouldn’t take a voucher to give them better choices. Just a bus pass would be a good start. But ultimately, we need to be thinking about how to improve the existing options nearest families so they can exercise the choice many parents really want—to keep their children close to home.

Different Families, Same Choice

Consider a tale of two families. Family One is a wealthy family of five who recently moved to Chicago’s North Shore. When they first arrived and were staying in temporary housing, they put their three children in a Catholic school in the next suburb north and began househunting. Eventually, the family moved to that next northern suburb, Wilmette, settling into a house right next door to the local public elementary school. When fall rolled around, their children went to the school next door. Family Two is a family of seven who are not wealthy and live in an impoverished neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. When their oldest children were starting high school, the local high school options were two schools that have struggled for decades to improve graduation rates and test scores. Luckily, they had the persistence and savvy to look elsewhere. Of their five daughters, three graduated from Rauner College Prep, a campus of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. To get to and from school, these young women spent nearly two hours a day traveling more than six miles each way. But by the time their younger sisters were getting ready for high school, something was different in the neighborhood. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had built a brand-new high school just a mile from their house. Guess where the last two daughters went? You got it—the new, nearby, district-run high school.

Good Neighborhood Schools Matter

When given the option of a well-reputed, free public school close to home, both of these very different families made exactly the same choice. In 2015, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research reported that when families were forced to find new schools in the wake of nearly 50 school closings in 2013, nearly a third of them didn’t choose the welcoming school the district encouraged them to join. When those schools were lower-performing than their previous school, parents overwhelmingly chose them because they were close to home. Interviews with parents showed many were concerned about safety, weather and lack of transportation to schools farther away. As we approach the confirmation hearings for education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, we can expect to be hearing a lot about school choice. While we’re talking about billions of dollars for vouchers, let’s carve out some airtime to talk about affordable, accessible, efficient public transit, which would expand and increase the quality of choices for many parents. And let’s also make time to think about the foundation of all good school choices: a tuition-free, high-quality public school—close to home.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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