My Experience with School Choice

“School choice” is one of those word combinations that lead people to think in sweeping generalities that align with their own beliefs about how schools should look. Political ideology gets in the way, and the zero sum game mentality takes over, leaving no room for nuance or compromise.

Some hear the phrase and immediately think “corporate profiteers,” “privatizers,” “vouchers,” “religious zealots,” “anti-union,” “competition,” and now even “Donald Trump.”

Others hear “states’ rights,” “flexibility,” “non-union,” “market driven,” “one size doesn’t fit all,” “autonomy,” and “innovation.”

Parents aren’t fixated on any of these things. Those who have chosen to exercise school choice don’t think in this binary way. They make choices based on their children’s best interest, overall well being, and future opportunities, and they give nary a thought to politics or governance models or the pontificating of folks on either side of the school choice debate. While folks fight over charters and vouchers policies, parents fight for their kids.

Parents want good schools with good teachers. They want their children to have limitless opportunities. And they need to know that their children are safe.

Moreover, our kids’ needs change. I speak from experience. I have three children who have attended our neighborhood schools and a local charter school. Our decisions about their educations had nothing to do with the political and ideological arguments swirling around school choice—and I say that as someone who spends my days in the middle of those debates.

We weren’t satisfied with the academics at our neighborhood elementary school when my oldest reached second grade. The expectations were far too low, the excessive absences of a prior teacher had left a very bad taste in my mouth, and my employment afforded me the option to enroll all my children in the charter school in which I worked. I was confident that the academics would be stronger if I moved them, and it would mean much more exposure to kids of a different ethnic and socioeconomic background, as the charter serves two urban and two suburban districts. But I also knew it’d mean leaving a school to which I can throw a rock from my house and instead spending forty-five minutes every afternoon picking up my boys from school. And they would leave their local buddies and rarely, if ever, see the kids on their sports teams in school.

We decided to make the move. My oldest started third grade in the charter, my middle son started in first, and my youngest was still in pre-school but ultimately began his K–12 career in the charter school and remains there now.

Fast forward to when my then third grader became a fifth grader. He was extremely committed to athletics, and it had begun to bother him that his teammates weren’t in his school. He also knew that the district middle school had far more competitive sports teams than his current charter school. He wasn’t happy.

While I still contend that the academics are stronger in the charter school, I was forced to grapple with the reality that academics are only one piece of an adolescent’s school experience—and for my eldest child, this charter thing wasn’t working anymore. He’d developed strong preferences that he didn’t have as an eight-year-old entering third grade.

He switched to the local district middle school for the start of sixth grade, and it was like a reunion. He loves the change, has made the basketball and baseball teams, and now spends lunch every day with the pals he never used to see during the school day. He is happy. It’s a better fit. He is not being pushed as hard academically, and that is disappointing to me as a parent, but he is learning new things and says he feels like he’s at least being pushed in math. And he is able to pursue his passion of playing sports in a way he wouldn’t have been able to in his former school. The practices, the games, the outings to the local pizza place are all part of an experience that he relishes—and will remember.

Nevertheless, we gave up something. We lost the unmatched diversity. There is certainly a mix of kids at his new school, but it is nothing like being in a place that intentionally blends urban and suburban students. His social studies and English language arts assignments are less thought provoking, and I can no longer call or text his teachers. I really miss those qualities.

Parenting, just like anything else, is chock full of decisions that come with trade offs, and school choice is no exception. We do the best we can for our kids with the options that we have, and the quality of those options varies by zip code far more than it should. My husband and I couldn’t afford to buy a home in a place with excellent schools. But unlike millions of low-income Americans, we were able to buy a house in a place where the schools are decent. The decisions about our own children’s education are made far away from the political noise and ideological sparring that defines much of my work life. Instead, they revolve around what is best for our children and what will work for us as a family.

I suspect that most parents would say the same.

— Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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