What do the voices of school choice sound like?

Until last week, I thought that I was the poster child for school choice.

My parents chose to move our family from the city to the country in the 1970s, mainly for the schools, while my wife and I have chosen private schools of various types for our children for the last 10 years.

But last week I realized that my perspective was extremely skewed.

Gathered at an early Halloween party were two groups of parents – one from the neighborhood Catholic school that we had just left after four years, and one from our brand new, lottery-only STEM school that our children had been attending for about six weeks. As those two worlds connected in my living room, the stories told by the two groups of parents differed significantly.

Parents from the Catholic school did not speak of “choices.” It was simply expected that their children would go to this school through eighth grade and move on to the designated Diocesan high school after that. Most of those adults had made the same progression when they were students 25 years earlier and there were no other options to consider as far as they were concerned. Don’t get me wrong, any number of families struggled to afford even the low tuition there (lowest in the Columbus diocese), but there was very little “choice” involved. Just the sacrifice. Once made, nothing else entered into the equation.

That is not how we got there. For us, it was the best choice among many. We researched and found that it was fairly rigorous (in the lower grades especially), we could afford it without any “deals” or special treatment, it was within walking distance on a good day, and it had two after-school care programs connected to it that we could choose from (vital to us, but an extra cost of course).

Parents from our new school sounded a bit more like us at first, discussing the multiple options they had had prior to landing here–online schools, brick and mortar charters, private schools, magnet schools in their district, moving lock stock and barrel to another district. The difference was they had actually tried most of them. Several of our girls’ friends have been in four or more different schools prior to sixth grade.

Here were bright kids and dedicated parents who had been so desperate for something better or different than what was offered in their assigned neighborhood public schools that they were willing to drive across town for open enrollment to another district or to supplement inefficient (or absent) transportation to a magnet school miles away. A number of parents currently have children in different schools based on what they know their children need, including a set of twins! And heartbreak stories were numerous – lottery losses, tuition struggles, job losses, broken marriages, illness, dwindled promise in a new school.

I am fortunate to have the means to make and keep choices. I am fortunate to be “plugged in” and know what’s out there without having to jump from school to school. I am extremely lucky to have won the lottery when I attempted it, even after some setbacks. But a number of my fellow school parents’ stories go like this: “I heard about this school from a therapy client and jumped at it”; “I heard about the opening of the lottery the day before the deadline from my pastor”; “My daughter heard about the school from her friend; she really did it all”; “I wasn’t sure we could make it work even when we got in.”

This is what real school choice sounds like – desperation, heartbreak, hard work, a large amount of luck, setbacks, and, hopefully, triumph in the end. Me? I clearly had it easy, no matter what I thought before that evening. And it should be as easy for them as it is for me.

There should be abundant, high-quality choices for all parents who want them. Schools of choice should be easy to find, easy to access, and welcoming to families of every type. Emphasis should be on the future – rigor, growth, adulthood, success. The voice of school choice on the other side of the desk should say, “We’re glad you found us. Let me tell you how our school will help your children achieve their highest potential.”  That’s what we heard when we came to our new school, but the stories of my fellow school parents were not like that.

And now – if it all works like it’s supposed to at our new school – none of us will ever have to do this again. It’s a straight path from middle school into college – with a focus on that as the end goal of every assignment, every test, every conference, every teacher interaction, every day. I know that that is what I’m banking on as the end result of my school choice journey. I hope it is the same for all of us gathered in the living room last week.

If not, then I expect more difficult searches and more heartache for parents who already know what the struggle to find the right school really feels like.

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