When I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the mid 90’s, I moved to New York City. And I did what most young folks did then: found the cheapest apartment I could afford in the nicest neighborhood possible. That place was a first-floor front studio near Central Park. The block was lovely, but I lived in the worst building on it. Sanitation workers used to wake me up when they threw the cans against my outside windows. In the winter, I heated the place with my open stove. And if anything broke, it took forever to get it fixed.
I paid about three-fourths of what I made to live in that apartment, and my landlord knew that. And because of this, our relationship was uneasy. I only pushed so hard to get things fixed because I couldn’t afford to move. She only did enough to make it barely livable. And we both knew there were hundreds of kids, just like me, ready to take my spot if I decided to head back home. It was all win for her and, because I could not move, all lose me.
My relationship with my old landlord is the same relationship most parents and children of color, particularly in cities, have with their neighborhood schools and school districts. The quality of instruction is poor and, according to the Office of Civil Rights, students are far more likely to be taught by a teacher who is out of subject specialization than elsewhere. There are 90 schools in New York City, for instance, where not one minority child passed the recent round of state tests. These kids and families are stuck with their schools just like my old landlord and I were; the school only giving what it must, and the family desperate to get more for their child’s education.
Eventually I got lucky, got a new job, and moved to a better apartment. For most folks, however, moving to a better “building,” or a school or school district in this case, just isn’t an option.
If you have money or influence in America, you don’t even blink when your local school doesn’t deliver. You know you can “move” to a private school or another school district, and the local school does too. So if that power is good enough for the wealthiest and most influential, why shouldn’t we give low-income families in southwest Baltimore where I’m from, or Newark, or New York the same options?
As a child I got a scholarship to an excellent school and that changed my life, forever, and there is no day I don’t wake up and know how blessed I am because of it. “Parent Choice” in education is the one thing that can help families, just like mine, and help them today. Take a lesson from my old landlord. Your zip code and your income might dictate where you live … but they shouldn’t determine your child’s future.
Derrell Bradford is the executive director of The New York Campaign for Achievement Now