Just about every weekday morning, I drive 12 minutes south to an elementary school in a Lansing suburb. All my girls attend this year: it’s a K-4 public school. We love that place: the teachers and staff are warm and friendly, art class rocks, the field trips are fantastic, the principal welcomes kids by name as they unload from the drop-off line.
Our family chose this school. Michigan’s 20-year-old Schools of Choice policy allows families to do just that: each spring parents can try to nab for their kids open seats in other districts. Lawmakers and districts have made this all super easy, requiring just a short application, maybe a lottery if more people apply than seats are open. Districts love it because it’s a revenue stream (well, unless you’re on the losing end, but we’ll mention that later). People like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos love choice because it “releases” children from their ZIP codes (which I’m not sure is what an incarnate God would have done, but we’ll come back to that later, too).
Our family uses the Schools of Choice program because we were conflicted about program cuts and where to even begin in a big district with a mediocre-at-best reputation (read the backstory in The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us, with coauthor Sarah Arthur).
Our time in the suburban school has been fantastic. But two-and-a-half years into being a Choice family, we’re reconsidering.
We moved to Lansing to live in Lansing: to be in a neighborhood, to walk the sidewalks, and make this place home. We’re asking now: can we do that while our kids and their relationships come from another community? How far does this go, this living in one place but spending our lives in another: do we sign up for a soccer league in Lansing or with their friends in the suburbs? Do we do the family movie night at school?
I picture our van’s taillights leaving red streaks in our wake as we drive back and forth, back and forth, to and fro. Every day, twice a day. My husband and I have felt at times nauseated and at others angsty about that: if we aren’t careful, we could end up spending more time there or in our cars than in our neighborhoods or in our city. The city, we chose first.
Thinking of the thing Jesus said was pretty important: If we’re to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, then we should love our neighbors’ kids as our own. My kids don’t deserve different from any other kids in my ZIP code. We can’t be released from our ZIP code. We don’t want to be.
The rub is this: few students on the streets nearest us go to Lansing. Choice programs have broken up our neighborhood. The neighborhood school isn’t our common place, and kids who live on the street just behind our house are strangers to my kids. Wouldn’t they have gone to school together? What have we done for relationships?
A big And. What damage have we done as a group? Choice has dwindled away at Lansing schools’ enrollment (which is already in a natural decline, as are most schools in the state). Each student who opts into another school district takes with them about $7,000 in state aid funds. An article from 2016 estimated the decline in enrollment to about 10,600 in ’16-’17 was a $3.1 million loss in state aid.
So they lay off teachers or cut programs. So the schools become more segregated. So people of a certain privilege who enroll our kids elsewhere can’t fathom going back.
Until they do. Hi. We say startling things around here.
School choice and public schools and education and all that — I could talk forever. But I won’t.
Instead, I’ve invited parents and writer friends to share their own public school stories in a series I’m calling Passing Notes. We’ve got to talk about public schools, my friends. They belong to us — we can improve this narrative. Subscribe to the blog (—> over there!) to follow the series.
AND! NEW! NEW AND SHINY!
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