What is school choice? I thought I knew the answer to that question until recently when I had the privilege of attending a two-day conference on this topic, hosted by The Franklin Center in Milwaukee.
My only previous experience with school choice was when my daughter was in 3rd grade. She was attending our local public elementary school which happened to be on the “at risk of failing” list. (If by “at risk” you mean teaching kids you can divide by zero or putting misspelled words onto teacher prepared spelling lists, then how bad does it have to get before a school is actually failing? But, I digress.) We decided to take advantage of the poor excuse for a school choice program in Arkansas. After working our way through the red tape, we finally found a school we were excited about and went to the school district for final approval. We were told they could not accept our daughter because she is Hispanic and they could not accept any more Hispanic children due to affirmative action regulations. If we wanted to indicate her race as white (since she is half), they could accept her.* We were appalled and walked out of the meeting.
As part of the Franklin Center program, I, along with about 40 other bloggers from all over the U.S., boarded some big yellow school-busses to go visit some local Milwaukee schools where school choice is working. Our first stop was at Hope Christian High School. This place changed everything I ever thought I knew about inner city education.
Hope Christian, as the name suggests, is a private religious school. It operates primarily on a voucher program whereby students are awarded a coupon from their home school district which they can take and use at any school in the voucher program, even private religious schools. (There have been court challenges to using vouchers for religious education, but the Supreme Court ruled the practice constitutional in the 2002 case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. The ruling holds that benefits lie with parents and not with institutions so it does not violate the separation clause.) Could this be something inner cities in Arkansas could adopt? One can hope.
Hope Christian school looked very much like the Christian school my own kids had attended back in Arkansas. It was bright and sterile with clunky blue lockers lining the entry hall. There were blinding fluorescent lights glaring down from the high ceiling and the first office was that of the athletic director. He was a grizzly of a man, enormous by my 110 lb. 5’1” standards. He talked to a group of us at length about the athletic program; how they use it to encourage the kids and make sure they pull the grades necessary to be successful. I was genuinely moved by his passion. While my colleagues shook his hand at the conclusion, I hugged him and thanked God for people like him who are willing to intervene in the lives of at risk kids, to bring them closer to Christ, and to make sure they go to college.
We were free to walk around the school and wander through classrooms at will and observe students at work. Hope Christian is a predominately black school, approximately 98%. I stood outside one particular class for some time watching a tall, slender young man with very long trendy dreads and sharp uniform giving a speech. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but he had the class in roaring laughter with his animated delivery. There was great joy on his face and pride in what he was doing. I couldn’t help but wish my own children would display that kind of love for learning.
Later, as a group, we listened to some young ladies who were seniors at the school and someone asked them if they live close by and how they get to school each day. One of the ladies said she gets up at about 4am every day to catch three different public busses in order to arrive at school on time. That took my breath away.
All over the school, there were hand made signs indicating the achievements of the students. Everything from the day’s attendance to how many kids had already been accepted to college were on display (incidentally, there was already 68% acceptance 2 months into the school year and previous year acceptance was 100% with over $1million in scholarships awarded to 30+ seniors). Every single person in that school was completely focused on the achievement, at a personal level, of every student. My own high school experience in California was quite the opposite of what I saw at Hope and I suspect that is the case for most people, unfortunately.
I could go on about all of the amazing things I experienced at Hope, but they are only a footnote to what is going on every day in the lives of the students there. They are thriving in a world that has told them no. They are succeeding in an area of their lives that most people tell them is impossible for them. They are graduating high school and they are going to college which is more than we can say for a large percentage of this nation right now. They are doing it against the odds and school choice is making it possible for them. Don’t believe me? Check out this video of their 2012 graduating class college signing ceremony (grab the kleenex).
For more information on what you can do to support school choice expansion in Arkansas, please visit The Franklin Center website.