In this Tuesday, June 7, 2016 photo, students walk into the Waukegan High School's Brookside campus in Waukegan, Ill. The district struggled to meet the needs of its students even before the foreclosure crisis left blocks dotted with empty homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski) (AP)

An American tragedy: The real cost of denying people choice in education

One mother was sentenced to five years in prison. Her crime: trying to get her son into a functional school.


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Carrie Sheffield
September 26, 2016 4:00PM (UTC)

As Charlotte, N.C. erupted into racially-charged riots, sadly the conversation hasn’t turned to concrete ways to mitigate the cultural and socioeconomic forces that trap many people of color in failing schools. And once these kids fail in school, this ensnares them in a downward spiral. As the American Psychological Association reports, compared to high school graduates, dropouts are less likely find a job and earn a living wage, and more likely to be poor, suffer from a variety of adverse health outcomes, rely on public assistance, engage in crime and generate other social costs borne by taxpayers.

In Charlotte, the Observer reports that 43 of 165 schools had overall pass rates below 50 percent and that last year those schools served 33,500 students, most of them poor and 95 percent of them nonwhite. With such a failing system, it’s no wonder that the city is on edge. Schools in Baltimore and Ferguson have similar outcomes. Correlation doesn’t imply causation, yet when children of color from poor backgrounds are entrapped in failing schools it’s no wonder that years later we find them rioting in the streets. Right now, we don’t empower parents the choice to send their children to better schools. We are an anti-choice country in this respect.

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While much is reported, analyzed and even sung about the cradle-to-prison pipeline, we have yet to build a successful national agenda for strengthening the nuclear family and expanding school choice — a value cherished nationwide by millions of parents and children, many of them black and brown. Indeed, that’s why the waiting lists alone for charter schools have more than 1 million names.

A case study of these forces is Tanya McDowell, a homeless African-American woman arrested and sentenced to prison five years, in part, for educating her son. Though McDowell had also reportedly engaged in other criminal acts (including selling drugs and promoting prostitution) beyond enrolling her son in a public school, her case represents an appalling coalescence of the forces underlying the racial tensions not only in Charlotte but in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere.

McDowell was reportedly homeless, floating among various homeless shelters and living in a van in Norwalk, Conn., while her young son attended classes at Brookside Elementary School in Norwalk. Because she had no permanent residence in the school district and her last mailing address was in nearby Bridgeport, Conn., she was charged with first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny for allegedly stealing $15,686 from Norwalk schools.

If McDowell and her family had access to better educational options, this outrageous case could have been avoided. Bridgeport's schools are among the worst performing in the state, and the city has a poverty rate of nearly 24 percent compared to 15 percent nationwide. Often these schools like Bridgeport with student bodies from predominately challenged socioeconomic backgrounds are chaotic and violent — academic subjects are often the last thing on anyone’s mind. Survival trumps studying, gangs replace peer study groups, drugs and booze supplant the euphoria and endorphin release of team sports and other extracurricular and artistic activities.

I experienced some of this chaos firsthand as a middle school student in the troubled public schools of Kansas City, Mo. — a system so awful it was stripped of accreditation by the state of Missouri. Before school began, my classmates and I spent hours lined up outside the buildings, waiting for metal detectors and security guards to search our belongings for weapons and drugs. These were majority minority schools, where many students resorting to fistfights, sometimes even threatening teachers and other school officials. Schoolwork was an absolute joke.

So, given the choice between schools like this and better alternatives like those in Norwalk, it’s no wonder that McDowell wanted something better for her son. She is one of millions of parents who are squirming to get out of  the straightjacket of failing schools. In New York City, for example, the vast majority of teachers receive high personnel assessment rankings from administrators even as many incompetent teachers are protected by unionized rubber rooms. Bad teachers are shielded from accountability because adult union leaders want to protect teacher tenure more than they want to educate children.

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Rather than empowering parents to choose to send their children away from failing schools, sadly, it is the teachers unions who so often block school choice, threatened by competition. These teacher union machines have created a toxic feedback loop with Democratic politicians who shield schools from true reforms, including curriculum changes that would better equip students with the STEM skills of the future. While they are far from a panacea, charter and parochial schools offer creative and substantive alternatives to the ills of Bridgeport — and, yes, Charlotte.


Carrie Sheffield

Carrie Sheffield is a Salon Talks host, founder of Bold and adviser to Lincoln Network. She previously wrote editorials for The Washington Times, covered politics for POLITICO and The Hill and analyzed municipal credit for Goldman Sachs and Moody's Investors Service.

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Charter School Movement Education Reform School Choice

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