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When the Only Real Choice Is Private: My Unlikely Attraction to School Vouchers

This post is part of a series on the issue of vouchers and private school choice. With the Trump administration’s vows to expand school choice, many states are moving aggressively to create more options for families, but some who support education reform and high-quality charter schools are troubled by the use of public dollars as vouchers, tax credits or education savings accounts. More on vouchers →
  When I taught in the “’hood,” I chose to enroll my own daughter in the same “’hood” school and didn’t think twice about it. My child attending my school kept me honest, a tangible reminder to advocate for each low-income student as if they were my own. It didn’t end well for me. You cannot fire an outspoken parent, but you can fire a non-tenured teacher who happens to be an outspoken parent. So I ended up  losing my job for asking “why” too many times instead of “how.” Hurt, I did what was seen as treasonous to the teachers union: I accepted a job at a charter school and chose to enroll my daughter there. This time I didn’t have to hold that principal’s feet to the fire because she was the founder of the school and nobody cared more about its success than she did. Within 10 years, the principal and her husband started a family. As her children got older, her priorities began to shift and she decided to move to the suburbs and run a school out there. She cried. I cried. The staff cried. It felt like the end of an era.

Why I Had to Take My Daughter Out of My Charter School

My oldest daughter graduated two years later and went off to a good district high school. My youngest daughter, however, was left at the school, which now had a revolving door of leadership that struggled to fill the big shoes the founder had left. My child began struggling academically as new teachers cycled in and out. She had good grades but abysmal standardized test scores. I took her out of my school in the  middle of third grade, but re-enrolled her in the fourth grade. I was torn: Although she was learning to speak, read and write in Spanish fluently through the school’s dual-language program, her spelling and vocabulary development in English, in addition to her math skills, were severely lacking. To add to the stress, my daughter was a Black girl in a school that was 80 percent Latino and had no African-American teachers. (I abandoned my distinction as the only Black teacher in the school when I took an alumni support role three years ago). My kid wasn’t getting much cultural affirmation, as the school had all but stopped even acknowledging Black History Month. Then there was the teasing: despite having lots of friends, it was also commonplace for boys to look at my daughter and laugh whenever the word “black” or its Spanish translation, “ negro,” was verbalized—even when referring to the color of a crayon. Hence, I chose to transfer her out of my charter school in January. But where could she go?

Next Stop: The Neighborhood School

I paid a visit to my neighborhood school. The best choice would be the school that’s just a block or two away, right? Wrong. When I moved into the neighborhood 12 years ago, my local school was known for its low test scores, high principal turnover and turbulent school culture. But in searching for a new school, I was surprised to see that it was now wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate (IB) and rated as a Level 1+, the highest rating within Chicago Public Schools (CPS). I decided to make an unannounced visit. The principal was suspicious of me but polite. She gave me a brief tour of the cafeteria and a partial hallway and then took me into an empty classroom for a 30-minute chat. She stated that 98 percent of her students were Black and low-income, which didn’t surprise me. However, when I asked her about class size, she said my daughter would be the 41st student in the fifth-grade class. I replied, “I wouldn’t do that to the fifth-grade teacher, let alone my own child!” She also informed me that due to persistent budget cuts, she was forced to discontinue all early-bird or after school programs. Essentially, my 10-year-old would have to lock up the house and see herself off to school at 8:30 a.m. (while I’m at work) and let herself into an empty house at 3:45 p.m. (while I’m still at work). Not gonna happen.

Last Stop: Private School Tuition

After agonizing over this situation and reading E.D. Hirsch’s latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, over Christmas break, I felt that the free education my daughter was getting was just too expensive. I needed to find a school that would start filling her academic gaps while also providing culturally responsive pedagogy—with an extended-day option. I chose to enroll her into an independent classical school in a middle-class Black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The school uses Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum and teaches the children about their prized African-American heritage, all while taking an old-school approach (i.e., spelling tests, classic novels with challenging vocabulary words, grammar lessons, Latin, geography, Saxon math, and long passages of prose and poetry that must be memorized and recited). The content is undoubtedly much more rigorous, but with only 13 kids in her class she will no longer fall through the cracks. I also love that the school is primarily run by strong, African-American female teachers. They are stern but nurturing and emit Black intellectualism and dignity vaguely reminiscent of Maya Angelou and  Nikki Giovanni. The combination of the two—a rigorous, coherent curriculum and cultural relevance—is priceless! Well, not exactly. The cost of tuition is a bit of a stretch, and it will increase by 25 percent next school year to make much-needed upgrades. I never imagined that I’d be hustling school raffle tickets like a bootlegger with a five-for-$20 DVD pack just to satisfy the school’s $500 per semester parent fundraising requirement. (Would you like to buy a raffle ticket? First prize: Two Hamilton tickets and a $200 dinner at Wildfire? You should buy one, really…) My daughter’s tuition wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t also paying private tuition for my three-year-old son.

I Would Gladly Accept a Couple of Vouchers Right About Now

I called CPS to inquire if any of my newly raised property tax dollars could go towards his preschool education. The woman on the phone referred me to three magnet schools in the city—none of which are remotely near my home and would require literally winning the lottery to enroll him. She also shared a few other district options, but warned me that I may get waitlisted because children who are homeless, on welfare, in foster care, have a disability or have recently arrived from another country get preference. I asked her, “Why can’t all 3-year-olds have equal access to school?” With the cost of living skyrocketing in Chicago and a hardworking husband who manages a part-time job as he pursues a college degree (more tuition!), I’ve actually started eyeballing my retirement savings as a means to fund my kids’ preschool and elementary school education. That’s just ridiculous! I would gladly accept a couple of $5,000 school vouchers right about now. Ten grand would go a long way toward the $24,000 private school bill I can expect to see next school year. Forgive me, school reform comrades, for this act of treason. Siding with my child is an unalienable right. The argument that vouchers will pull money out of the public education system is a joke, seeing that, even without a voucher program, CPS may end up closing schools three weeks early (costing me three weeks of pay) because the district is $215 million short. Am I supposed to eat scraps just because they are served to me for “free”? I’m actually paying for steak! And it baffles me why so many of my friends are against school vouchers when their parents struggled miserably to put them through private school, laying the foundation for the professional success they enjoy today. I would love for my hard-earned tax dollars to provide my children with a district or charter school option that affirms the beauty of their Blackness while instilling in them academic disciplines that prepares them for college. But it hasn’t. Since I am risking bankruptcy to adequately educate my children, I’ve decided to go public: My only real school choice right now is private.
Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...

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