School Choice Goes To the Movies


Everything anyone needs to know about school choice – who benefits from it and who opposes it – was summarized in the first few minutes of the movie Hidden Figures … and in the trailer right before it.

Hidden Figures, which won the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast, stars Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson of Empire, and singer Janelle Monae, as three ground-breaking African-American women who worked as “computers” for a segregated NASA as part of the 1960s space program.

As my daughter’s 10th birthday actually fell on Martin Luther King day this year, we took her and a group of friends to see Hidden Figures at a theater in Harlem.

Prior to the movie starting, we were treated to a trailer for another upcoming film, Gifted (which, ironically, also co-stars Octavia Spencer). It tells the story of a seven-year-old math prodigy being raised by her laid-back uncle. When the girl’s uptight grandmother wants to transfer her to a school for the gifted, the uncle fights back, arguing that his late sister wanted her daughter to have a normal life which, as he defines it, includes frolicking on the beach and dancing around with her cat. Why, precisely, she cannot go to a school for the gifted during the same hours that she now spends in public school, and frolic on the beach and dance with her cat on the weekends and during the summer, isn’t made clear (at least, in the trailer).

Hidden Figures started a few moments later. And one of the very first scenes featured another math prodigy, Katherine Coleman (later Goble Johnson). Katherine’s parents are also informed that their daughter is gifted, but that her Greenbrier County, West Virginia public school doesn’t offer an education to African-Americans past the eighth grade. And fifth grader Katherine is already way beyond even that curriculum. However, a high school on the campus of West Virginia State College houses an intensive program open to all, and they are willing to accept ten-year-old Katherine – as long as she can get there. Her parents don’t hesitate. A collection is taken up, and her family splits, living part time in both places. Her father makes regular 120 mile trips to visit. Nobody talks about depriving Katherine of a “normal” life.

The family in Gifted has the privilege of wondering about such things. The Colemans don’t. They see that their daughter has only one chance to get an appropriate education. They make this choice, difficult as it is, because they know any other is a dead end.

Things have changed in the United States since 1928, of course. But not that much, especially in areas of education, and who has access to what sort.

It’s almost ninety years later and, still, families who don’t want their children in an intense academic environment have the option of applying to progressive, unzoned schools such as the ones described here (which, although created ostensibly to provide for an underserved demographic, more often than not end up with a majority affluent one). Yet those who would prefer something more structured and rigorous than what’s offered by their local zoned schools are told to stay there and “work to make it better.” Anything else is a betrayal of nothing less than American values.

And who exactly is taking this choice away from them? Usually, it’s people who already have plenty of choices. Those who can choose what sort of school their child attends by moving to a different district, or knowing enough to apply to a lottery, or prepping them for Gifted & Talented testing (many more qualify than there are seats), or paying for private school unassisted. Almost all apologetically tell me a version of the same thing when they come for help applying to any of the above. “I believe in public schools. But, my local school just isn’t a good fit, and that’s why I need to look elsewhere.”

How about a charter school, I suggest, when scrolling through all available options.

Oh, no, no, those are awful. They take the best and the brightest families out of public schools and deprive them of much needed resources. Plus, they’re so rigid, nobody should be allowed to do that to a child. Kids deserve to live a normal life and just be kids!

So, to review: You get to make a choice for your child, but you know what’s best for other people’s children?

There’s a movie I’d like you to watch…

— Alina Adams

Alina Adams is a New York City mom of 3 school-age children. Her website is NYC School Secrets. This post originally appeared on New York School Talk.

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