Graduation Wish

She was asking for the barest of minimums: her child’s safety

It was 110 degrees outside when I arrived at my children’s school to pick them up, but the icy glares of my fellow moms threatened to freeze me to the sidewalk. The headlines were catching up with me.

The day before, I had called for the elimination of assigned schools in favor of universal choice—a nearly unforgivable act as far as many suburban parents are concerned. Those who not only know the rules of public education but also have the money to use them to their children’s advantage believe that such a proposal directly threatens them.

On these days, as I dodge my friends on the way to the car, even I question what motivates me to say such things. Think them, okay, but say them? Then I remember: because it’s the right thing to do.

Public education traditionally assigns children to schools based on where they live, and children live in vastly different neighborhoods. The same system that brings lucky parents—and I am one—their own “neighborhood school” denies its quality to others. I don’t bemoan the strong emotional attachment that some parents develop for their schools. I bemoan the fact that not all parents have reasons to share the sentiment.

One of the most compelling discussions of my life occurred in a small alternative school located deep in the inner city. I was visiting a program that sought to teach children who had been removed from the classroom for behavior problems. The students were doing well academically, but the school is not what ultimately moved me.

I was speaking with a student’s mother when we happened upon the topic of our shared support for school vouchers. The topic quickly moved to our own children when she asked me what I look for in a school. I spoke of high academic expectations, respect for my children, and a positive school atmosphere. Summed it up, I thought.

Her response floored me. She told me that she wanted her son, Chopper, to be alive at the end of high school. Period.

The same system that brings lucky parents their own “neighborhood school” denies its quality to others.

We continued to talk—mainly about her young son’s experience of losing a number of his friends to gang violence, and about her search for a school where her son would be safe. But I remained unsettled through the rest of that day and several more as I reflected on the chasm between our perceptions of what we could expect for our children.

I had always been a staunch supporter of school vouchers. In fact, as a member of the state legislature, I had been relatively obnoxious in my advocacy. Allowing parents to choose where to send their children to school always seemed to be a fairer and more economically sound approach than trapping them in whatever school they had been assigned to. But never had I looked into the eyes of a mother who knew that the system could not guarantee her child’s basic safety, let alone his academic progress.

Few of us who are in a position to direct state educational policy will ever know the terror I felt and heard from my friend. She believed that regardless of the changes we made at the state level, she could never expect great things for her child. She was asking for the barest of minimums—a chance to choose a school that would keep her child from immediate harm. My search for academic excellence was a luxury she couldn’t afford.

The conversation was a poignant blessing—one I believe that I was meant to hear and meant to remember. It is the reason I am happy to risk the temporary crabbiness of my suburban friends who, like me, have chosen their schools by purchasing homes in affluent neighborhoods. We certainly recognize the value of our children’s education.

We should recognize the value of education for other people’s children too.

–Lisa Graham Keegan is the Arizona superintendent of public instruction.

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