School Choice Matters

For families living in the City of San Diego, today marks the opening for the School Choice application. Here’s why school choice matters, especially for the poor.

What is School Choice?

It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

School Choice allows families to decide each year if their children are best served by their neighborhood schools or if there is a better school in the same district for their child.

The upside is this allows families who live in neighborhoods where their school has traditionally underperformed. The downsides are plenty, but the primary one for families is that if you opt into school of your choice the district does not provide transportation, which for some families creates a barrier or burden.

Another downside is that school choice tends to allow schools that are doing well to do really well because they attract top students whereas schools with worse reputations struggle to turn things around because of brain drain… this has long-term impact on communities, especially communities with more socio-economic diversity. (Like Rolando)

One other negative consequence of school choice, especially in my neighborhood, is school choice allows affluent parents to opt out of their neighborhood school and drive their kids to an even more affluent area. (I call this the “birds of a feather flock together” effect) This has some classism and racism ties to it, which are an ugly downside of school choice.

Not all choices families make are for the right reasons. But, again, I believe giving families choices matters.

Why Choice Matters for the Poor

San Diego is a place of economic extremes. Outsiders love to point to our beaches and mansions but the City of San Diego also has a significant amount of working poor. A family might make $60,000 with 2-3 full-time jobs and barely scrape by.

This is evident even in my community of Rolando Village where the east side of the neighborhood is mostly single-family homes with yards and sidewalks and involved community members whereas the west side of the neighborhood has apartment buildings where there are often families of 6 in 2 bedrooms sharing 800 square feet. (This is the leftover impact of redlining, which I wrote about here.)

The working poor have few choices, therefore school choice matters all the more.

My experience with our kids attending Title 1 schools (Title 1 is a federal program that provides additional government resources to the school because a high number of students live in poverty, as defined by free lunch eligibility.) is that every family will put their child in the best school they have access to. For many who attend the elementary school Jackson attends, they have “choiced” into our neighborhood school because it’s perceived as being better than their own neighborhood school. At the same time a high percentage of Rolando residents “choice” into other schools outside of Rolando where they perceive the education is better.

For better or worse all of those parents are doing what they deem is best for their child.

Sidebar: Our older children “choiced out” of our neighborhood school, Clay Elementary. And they really missed out. Not only is Clay a great school which Jackson has done well in, he knows far more people in our neighborhood and WE are more connected to our neighborhood because we made the choice to not “choice out” of our neighborhood school when we could have.

School choice matters for the poor because it is a choice. When you’re poor you are often left choice-less. You live where you live because that’s what you can afford or that’s the only place that would take your Section 8 voucher or that was the only place you could find within your budget. School choice is a luxury for you mostly because you get to decide what’s best for your child.

The Choice of Charters

Layered on top of the City of San Diego’s school choice is a whole different choice, the choice of publicly funded charter schools. If a parent doesn’t like their neighborhood school they have an additional choice outside of the districts school choice program, applying to a charter school.

Charter schools are allowed to accept any student from anywhere in San Diego County. This means that if a family wants to drive from Mid-City San Diego and enroll their child in a charter school in Oceanside, they can do that and the funding for their child follows them. It might seem weird that a family would drive 50 miles to a school they perceive as better but maybe the parents of that child work in Oceanside? Maybe there is a program that the child will benefit from? Maybe they just want their child to experience life “north of the 8”? For that family, school choice matters.

School Choice Forces Public Schools to Compete

I’ll say this… public schools competing for students is a mixed bag. For one, public schools aren’t allowed to. They don’t have marketing budgets and they truly aren’t built to tell their story to the community to attract students. In that regard they are disadvantaged.

But the fact that in any given year, if a school doesn’t do well, parents have the choice to pull their kids out and go somewhere else, is a net win for public schools. They know they have to perform. If they perform well they attract more and better students. If they fail they end up in a death spiral.

Is it perfect? Not at all. But does it afford parents, especially the working poor, options? Absolutely. And for that reason I continue to support and be excited about School Choice.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

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