In the fall of 1989, Al Jones "lost" his mother in a way that should touch all of us. She didn't pass away. Rather, she gave up most of her parental rights. Al's new guardian was a family friend in whose home Al would go to live for the next two years.
Dorothy Jones did what she thought was best for Al, but it didn't come easily. Having moved from within the Bullock Creek school district to the Meridian school district--both within Midland County--she had to make a decision. She could either transfer Al from one high school to another or secure the Meridian school board's permission to allow Al to finish his junior and senior years at Bullock Creek. Al had his heart set on staying where he was.
Dorothy first asked the Meridian school board to release her son for academic and emotional reasons. Meridian didn't have the advanced classes Al had been taking at Bullock Creek. A psychologist sent a letter to the board in her support, arguing that Al was severely depressed because of the impending switch in schools.
"We wanted to pay tuition. We had a way to get him there. They have the academic classes there that he needs," she told The Midland Daily News. No matter. The Meridian school board denied the request twice. "If you live here, you go to school here," said one school board member who obviously has a thing or two to learn about customer service.
So Dorothy took the only route left open to her. She convinced the Midland County probate judge to transfer guardianship to her friend who lives in the Bullock Creek district. The new guardian was given all rights except consent of adoption and marriage. Al was "ecstatic" about being able to attend the school of his choice. "It's a shame that I had to do this, but what else could I do?" his mother asked.
Two years later, Roger and Kay Pettipas faced a similar situation. Their son Rory, a second grader in Meridian Elementary, had tested off the scale in reading comprehension and placed in the "gifted" category in math skills and IQ. Meridian didn't have a program for such promising children, and Rory was not being challenged to achieve his fullest potential. He was becoming frustrated and bored. Kay and Roger decided to enroll him in another public school with a gifted program, Handley Elementary, in a nearby district, then seek Meridian's approval so that state aid could follow Rory there.
The board refused. Kay and Roger pleaded, arguing that their low income would make it difficult to come up with the $1,800 Handley would have to charge them if state aid didn't apply. They advised the board that Rory was already enrolled at the other school, and that he would not be in attendance at Meridian for the "Fourth Friday" count. Somehow, they said, they would manage to pay the cost of keeping Rory at Handley, which meant that Meridian wouldn't receive state aid anyway.
So, with nothing to lose, do you suppose the board did the Pettipas family a favor and approved the release? It did not. In the end, private donors came to Rory's rescue so that he could attend the school of his choice.
These two, real-life stories dramatize the harm that the absence of choice in schools can do to real, live children. Though both cases happen to emanate from just one of Michigan's 524 K-12 school districts, they have many counterparts every year and from all corners of the state.
When Wayne State University, for instance, opened its new "charter public school" this fall, more than 5,000 applications came flooding in from all over Detroit for only 330 seats. As hundreds were given the disappointing news, there were voices from within the public school establishment opposing even this limited opportunity for the beleaguered children of Detroit.
What kind of an educational system is it that preaches the virtues of parental involvement but seeks to penalize some parents who want the best for their children? What kind of people behave as though the system were more important than the kids? Why, when the school of choice is willing to accept a child, should parents have to grovel before a board of local politicians for permission to do the right thing for their child?
No responsible, accountable, and customer-oriented provider of a service in a competitive market would ever think of behaving like a petty dictator. But it happens in public education because the system is built on monopoly and bureaucracy. It gets subsidized whether or not its clients are pleased with the product.
The argument for choice reduces to a basic parental right, a right exercised now only by rich people who can afford private schools and school boards who sometimes want state money more than they want kids to be educated.
The Legislature will soon consider whether or not it should liberate parents with the right of educational choice. Some opponents will argue that it's messy, that some parents might not make the right choice, that it otherwise threatens the "stability" of the status quo.
Let's hope that when all is said and done, the Legislature understands that educational choice is not just a theory or a luxury or a fad. It represents real hope for some very real kids out there.