National School Choice Week Is About Celebrating Every Parent’s Right to Choose

One of my favorite weeks of the year,  is  National School Choice Week. School choice means parental choice. It means ensuring that families have access to the school options (traditional, charter, magnet, homeschooling, private, online, etc.) that their children need. It is a foundational component of educational justice.

In a much-heralded democratic concept like parents choosing the schools they want their child to attend, you wouldn’t think folks—especially liberal white folks—would protest it so vehemently. But, alas, choosing while Black (CWB), is a much frowned upon right, unless you can navigate the parental choice the privileged are okay with.

In an article entitled, The Philly School Choice System No One Is Talking About, Avi Wolfman-Arent describes Philly’s version of school choice that the privileged give a resounding thumbs up to and participate in pretty consistently:

Its surrounding area — or catchment — encompasses a swath of West Philadelphia lined with Drexel University frat houses and dormitories…for as long as anyone can remember, high-performing Powel has been a magnet for parents outside the neighborhood seeking something better. In 2016-17, according to data from the School District of Philadelphia, 62 percent of Powel students traveled from outside the catchment.

It is a neighborhood school in name, but a choice school in practice.

Powel isn’t alone. There are 13 neighborhood elementary or middle schools in Philadelphia where more than half of enrolled students come from outside the catchment area, including one — F. Amedee Bregy School in deep South Philadelphia — where an astounding 88 percent of kids cross boundary lines.

I’m always amazed at the callous hypocrisy of it all and I have written about it here and here. While folks with condescending “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” attitudes love the idea of a neighborhood public school system, they most often use this system when they can afford to move their families to the suburbs and wealthier, gentrified city enclaves. The prevailing thought in too many of these circles is that, everyone should attend the school in proximity of their homes—unless you are of privilege. If so, you can than pursue the school of your choice, in the neighborhood of your choice.

If parents who make school choices for thir own kids, but stand in the way of other parents choosing a school that best fits their needs, whether magnet, charter or anything else, they should feel far more than a little hypocritical. They should feel oppressive and callous.

Avi writes, “The neighborhood school is an ideological trope in American education. Public school advocates idealize it, framing the neighborhood school as a communal centerpiece and birthright.”

In reality, there are few neighborhood schools, particularly those who serve marginalized communities that meet the needs of parents. So, it is infuriating that there are those who expect Black parents to disregard this reality and “stay put” while the affluent and privileged shop around for schools that meet their children’s needs.

In Philly Magazine, a magazine that is tailored towards the White and wealthy, privileged parents are told how to navigate the system in order to be able to find the school that is best for their children. Here is an excerpt from “How to Find the Best Philadelphia School for Your Child” below:

But for a whole lot of city parents, there’s just one public high-school option that’ll do: magnets. And there, the School District of Philadelphia excels. There are 19 special-admission high schools in the district, enrolling more than 13,000 students. 

There is no such magazine for the poor. What they get are roadblocks and attempts to shame them. As we celebrate National School Choice Week, let’s ensure this is a week for all, not just for some. That the right of parents to choose a school is a fundamental right that is not to be dove-tailed to income and status.

That is educational justice.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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  • I wrote a blogpost in response to the Philadelphia Magazine article in 2015 detailing my experience with Philadelphia school choice process after I went through it with both of my daughters at the same time. As an advocate for educational equality it was very disheartening going through the process with my family. My girls have since found good educational options but not without lots of trying and tears. I’m a Phily educator and thought I was prepared but wasn’t. It worked out in the end and I think that we in the inner city need options but the system in my eyes needs more transpency and an overhaul.

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