By Peggy Venable
As printed in Investor’s Business Daily
President Obama used the State of the Union address last week to praise the schools that “are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy.” He even called for “more demanding parents” who can take a more active role in their children’s education.
The president should instead have focused on the parents who are sacrificing everything to do just that, but are penalized for their efforts to give their children a better life.
Consider the story of Tanya McDowell and her 6-year-old son.
Tanya, a single mother in Connecticut, was homeless and trapped in poverty. Undaunted, she tried to provide a better education — and a better future — for her son by enrolling him in a high-performing public school across town. She hoped this would allow her son to succeed where she had not.
Tanya’s actions landed her in prison. She was charged with intentionally and fraudulently enrolling her son in a public school district where she did not reside. In 2011, she pleaded guilty to enrolling her son in the other school.
Now she’s serving five years in a Connecticut prison.
Sadly, Tanya’s plight isn’t unique. That same year, Kelly Williams-Bolar, a single mother in Akron, Ohio, was sentenced to five years in prison for similar actions. A mother in Clayton County, Ga., went to jail for the same offense.
These mothers all share similar situations.
All three of them are African-American.
All three of them lived in poverty with their kids.
And all three of them were guilty of the same crime: trying to give their children a better life.
What does it say about some of our school systems when parents’ options are so limited that they would commit felonies to avoid terrible public schools?
The fact that many low-income parents are unable to choose how or where to educate their children — and could be sent to jail for doing so — is tragic and shockingly unfair. A child’s ZIP code should not be an accurate predictor of their future prosperity or poverty — and yet that’s exactly what it has become for too many people.
State policymakers should allow parents to choose the best educational path for their children. If this had been the case in Connecticut, Tanya’s son would be getting the education she wanted him to have.
Some states have made strides in allowing parents more decision rights over their children’s education, but many have not. Students in Arizona are allowed to apply for admission to any public school in the state.
Arizona is one of only a handful of states to fully allow public school choice. Most other states have policies in place that allow for some level of school choice, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
In many cases, state policymakers and state courts see our inadequate education system as a funding issue rather than an issue of parental choice.
Unfortunately, this approach has stymied educational equality for people like Tanya and Kelly. Even President Obama has conceded that money alone cannot save our education system.
In California, the Oakland United School District had a budget of $602 million for the 2008-2009 school year, which meant the district spent an average of $16,270 per student. Yet 94% of eighth- and ninth-graders in the district tested below grade level on the California Standards Test for math.
Overall, the U.S. outspends most other countries on public education, averaging $12,000 per student annually. Yet American students continue to slide down the global education rankings in math, reading and science.
America’s educational system needs to be infused with the same freedom and choice that we enjoy in other aspects of our lives. Tanya McDowell knew that education is the key to success — but her son, like too many others, was stuck behind a locked door and unable to get the key.
Venable is the Texas state policy director and senior states policy advisor at Americans for Prosperity. She is a former White House liaison for the Department of Education and served on the board of the Texas Center for Education Research.