Choice programs give new meaning to ‘school shopping’

We got a haul one weekend earlier this month. We got sales pitches, free pencils and pens, and plastic cups with logos. Each schools’ booth in the Eastern High School gymnasium was trying hard to capture our attention — and our kids’ — with free swag and candy — or pet a snake, color a button, make a Lorax mustache, spin the wheel for a prize. The kids dumped all their goodies in a free backpack with an orange Tiger logo on the back, then asked to go see the next booth, the next one! They’re passing out emoji erasers!

That was the scene at our city’s school showcase a couple Sundays ago. Now, after weeding out the taffy and janky plastic toys, I’m left with a few Lansing School District water bottles in the top rack of my dishwasher, plenty of writing utensils, and enough handouts and applications to have decimated an urban forest. We even won a gift certificate to Steak and Shake somehow, yay.

The event is kinda cool, in that all the questions I had about my city’s public schools could ostensibly be answered in one place. Principals, teachers, and parents were on hand, as well as students who sang or performed at booths or on stage. In a district the size of Lansing’s, with all its 20-some schools, this was fantastic. I could ask about enrollment at a new magnet school and about the reading curriculum at a booth nearby. But two things struck me.

One: Um, we’re shopping for schools. 

We Christians have heard about church shopping long enough to satire it. Are we cool with school shopping, though? Culture and policies have created this near-expectation that districts (especially those with the most at stake) compete for our attention.

(Do malls still let boat salesmen or home improvement businesses line the concourses between Macy’s and JC Penney? This isn’t far off.) Each table was polished and ready to hand us an application for enrollment (or three, as they counted our kids). It was all done well and the people there seemed enthusiastic to be there. The talent show on stage was great.

But there’s no way to walk through there as a non-enrolled family and not feel like a participant in an unfair system. … And it’s hard not to enjoy the process; I like free pens. (Am I dreaming about schools like I am a boat at a boat show? Please discuss.)

Sidebar conversation: Sometimes I worry I’ll run out of free stock images that convey “schools.”

Two: We’re not the only ones feeling the ick. This wasn’t on most handouts, but we heard about a new grant that would allow the district to create new magnet schools. This is great for a district that is 100 percent choice-driven (in-district parents can apply to enroll in any school in the district no matter where you live). But it’s demoralizing for employees who have to reapply for their jobs. It’s hard to tour a school that doesn’t exist yet. It’s scary for a population of refugees and ESL learners who were told their school is reopening next year with new grade level configurations, or that the ESL program is moving to a magnet school. … We left the showcase with full swag bags and information overload.

At another magnet-info meeting last night, the crowd was packed with families and teachers whose translators and cultural ambassadors were explaining application, lottery, and enrollment details for these new magnets. I’m not going to speak for or project an opinion onto this diverse group, but the tone in that auditorium wasn’t jubilation.

We know this is hard, district employees restated. But this is for the best for our families, they said.

And I’m tired of that phrase, what’s best. I’m tired because everyone knows what’s best, it seems, except those of us who aren’t sure there is a best, or for whom, or for what reasons. 

I came home with my head whirring from the presentation. My kids were in the basement watching 101 Dalmatians. My husband was putting together a script for a movie short he’s doing for fun with a friend. And I sat on the couch with a book, some fiction about another world.

I have the ability to comprehend the words on the applications for the magnet school lottery (and with translators at the ESL school, so will others — and that’s awesome). But I can’t understand how we got here and what’s the next right thing for a family, for a neighborhood, for a city. So for now, I’m going to keep listening, keep praying, keep wondering. Keep touring schools, keep signing my name to my kids’ homework, keep buying snacks for classrooms of 26 kids … and keep on and on. 

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