Every time Donald Trump says, “school choice is the civil rights issue of our time,” I cringe. It’s hard to think of a more debauched messenger for a parent-powered social justice movement based on equitable access to quality education.
And so I think it’s time for those of us who call ourselves liberal Democrats—especially in the age of COVID—to get real about the fact that we practice school choice every day.
I’ll go first.
When I was a kid in Queens and about to start Martin Van Buren High School (where in 2016 14% of graduating seniors were college or career ready) my parents, who both worked in New York City public schools, exercised school choice and moved us to a higher-quality Long Island district.
When my husband and I decided to move from upstate New York to be closer to our business and family in New York City, we took a protractor (remember those?) and drew a 50-mile radius around mid-Manhattan. That’s how we ended up looking for a home in Central New Jersey, which was more affordable than Westchester or Connecticut or Long Island. With two little ones, local school quality was a primary driver and Princeton seemed perfect with its top-flight schools and easy commute to the train station.
That is until the real estate agent started showing us listings within our budget, or lack thereof. So we ended up in a school district south of Princeton, where the schools were not as great but still good and we could pay the rent. If we had moved one more district south, we’d be in Trenton where rents were cheaper and schools were awful. But we chose Lawrence because of its schools. We exercised school choice by way of the real estate market because we could afford to.
Civil rights aren’t supposed to come with a price tag
Our youngest, who has multiple disabilities and was enrolled in a day program, has been home since mid-March because of the coronavirus. We got a call from his program, which is thinking of bringing kids back, and I told them we’d need to see the full scope of their plans before we made a decision, especially since social-distancing and mask-wearing can be challenging for people on the spectrum. While we’d love to have him out of the house (he’d like that too!), we have the resources to keep him home because brightbeam, where I work, has been fully-virtual for years and my husband is mostly around. We have the privilege of putting health considerations first and making a choice that’s right for our family, especially since our son manages Zoom programming pretty well.
Parents make choices based on their child’s needs and circumstances all the time. That’s what parenting is, right? There’s no correct answer, just a risk:benefit calculation.
This mom (who is also a New York Times reporter) writes that in New York City “numbers are low enough that my husband and I have a real choice to make” and they decided to send their children to school.
This mom, who chose to keep her son home, noted, “at the end of the day, this is our child. We’ve been making decisions for him our whole life, regardless of what the district or the Department of Education says.”
Here’s the thing: If you care about school quality you support school choice. If you are a parent in the age of COVID you support school choice—in fact, it’s embedded into your decision-making every day. You may not think of it that way but it’s true.
Maybe the Problem Isn't School Choice
Maybe the problem isn’t school choice itself but its tainted connotations, boosted by those who strive to quell any challenge to institutional stasis. After all, it’s so easy to forget that the Democratic Party has a long history of embracing school choice. In 1972 the late great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed a tuition tax credit for families who send their kids to non-public schools. In 2015 former President Barack Obama was praised by the National Alliance of Public Charters Schools for his recognition of charters as a “highly valued public education option for millions of American families.”
But Trump is Trump. While so many equate school choice with civil rights (John Legend!) the term has become toxically Trumpified. Those who support the status quo giggle in delight at the prospect that 'The Donald’s' recitation of a school choice aphorism will trigger knee-jerk shoot-the-messenger reactions that have nothing to do with kids, especially Black low-income students whose parents support school choice, both public charters (55% in favor) and vouchers to private schools (67% in favor).
A modest proposal: Can we ignore the messenger and heed the message? Do we need to rename “school choice” in order to de-Trumpify the term? What phrase for you best summons the image of parents striving to improve the academic trajectory of their children? What phrase connotes social mobility, freedom, a fairer distribution of wealth, and the power to protect those you most love from not only contagion but intellectual stagnation?
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years ...