What the State Doesn’t Get About School Choice

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal told the story of the Hammett family, who moved 165 miles into a $2 million house in Westlake, Texas so that their children could attend a public high school with the best track record of getting their students into elite universities.  The father will commute back to Houston for his job as a lawyer, and their family will sell their house and move back to their old neighborhood as soon as their youngest child finishes high school.  For them, the sacrifice for their children’s education is worth it.

In Detroit, many families are making similar sacrifices to get their kids to the best school possible.  An analysis of the Excellent Schools Detroit School Report Card found that for every 10% points a schools rises in the State’s Top to Bottom ranking, students travel almost a half mile longer, on average, to get there.  In a city with the highest poverty rate in the nation for children (nearly 60%) and an inadequate public transportation system, the “Haves” are those families that have a reliable car and all that comes with it (or the ability to make significant sacrifices every day in travel time).  The “have-nots” are those without reliable transportation and all of the issues that underlie it.  And this causes a problem the State doesn’t get about school choice:

School choice is a great option for families who have the means to exercise it.  It makes life much worse for those who don’t or can’t.

Schools across Detroit generally share similar rates of children who receive free and reduced lunch (about 75-80%), but application-based “schools of choice” are filled with kids whose families have hope and expectations for their future.  Neighborhood schools are not.  And that makes the neighborhood school a very difficult place to be, no matter who’s running it.  Schools of choice have drawn students from families with the most ambition and social capital.  They make sure that their kids get to school and that they do their homework.  They also serve as the glue to hold a healthy school culture together.  The neighborhood schools they leave behind are filled with children who have much, much less of this support.  These schools are all but destined to be in the lowest 5% on school performance, just as they are in the lowest 5% of every other list of socio-economic factors.  Recently, Michigan’s School Reform Office announced that it may close 38 of them, if they can’t find a reason to the contrary in the next 30 to 45 days.

Some schools may need a fresh start.  But in threatening to close these schools without offering their plans or aspirations, the State is simply adding itself to a litany of adults failing the children who need help the most.