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Zip Code Politics

I met a gentleman at a holiday event over the weekend. He indicated that his daughter was in high school during our exchange of the usual pleasantries. Ever the curious educator, my next question was “where does she go to school?” His response prompted my next comment, which was “that’s a good school.” At this point in the conversation, he disclosed that the school she attends is not the one that serves their residential neighborhood. The high school she would be assigned to is plagued with numerous well known challenges that include high poverty, a significant drop-out rate, serious and ongoing discipline issues, and a history of poor academic performance. This dad confided that he just couldn’t subject his child to an education that was less than she deserved. Somewhat sheepishly, he shared that he had falsified their address of record so that she might have the benefit of greater opportunity.

I wish I had a dollar for every time an incident like this came to my attention as a public school administrator. I was frequently indignant by the actions of those who would dare to break with protocol. My mantra in those days was “no one should be above the rules.” My thoughts were filled with the question of “how dare they?” when I would learn that some of these transgressors were operating in this manner right under my nose, including a member of my administrative staff.

Since retiring, my position has changed. I would like to think that I am now more enlightened. At a minimum, I am more understanding. Gradually, as was the case with this chance weekend encounter, “how dare they?” has been replaced with “why wouldn’t they?” After all, the bottom line, the single motivation, is that parents long to provide the best opportunity they possibly can for their children.

Why shouldn’t they?

This question leads me to another. Who’s to blame? What circumstances have brought us to a situation where behaving deceitfully has become an obvious recourse.

My response to this question, “who’s to blame,” is going to annoy many people who are still invested in the daily operations of our systems of public education. However, annoying or not, I’m convinced that a substantial portion of the blame rests with the systems themselves: systems who have been willing to turn a blind eye to the realities before them; systems who have been content with tolerating obvious evidence of inequity; systems who have neglected the interests and needs of specific populations who typically reside in predictable postal zip codes; systems who have been willing to cater to the loudest, and often, the most affluent voices; systems who have failed to step in, and step up, to the immense challenges they are obligated to rectify.

Zip code politics.

Shouldn’t every family that is served by a public school system have an expectation that the education their children receive will be comparable and commendable, regardless of where they reside? Shouldn’t there be a reasonable expectation of a guaranteed, viable and appropriate experience for every child - in every corner of the system’s boundaries? This shouldn’t be too much to ask.

But, apparently, it is. And, it leaves families to resort to tactics that are not aligned with official expectations and policies.

To be specific, it allows some families to resort to tactics that are not aligned with official expectations and policies. Only those families with the political and economic capital to make their schemes plausible can bend the rules enough to open the opportunities they desire for their kids. Absent that, families remain confined to the experience afforded to their zip code.

That does not assure the education kids deserve.

TO BE CLEAR: I am not advocating a DeVosian approach of vouchers and an open-border system of school choice. Far from it.

I am advocating that our established systems of public education need to get serious about assuring that all students receive an education that is truly equitable, one that is not defined by their neighborhood zip code; rather, an experience that reflects The Education Kids Deserve.

To my new friend from the other evening . . . I get it. I understand that your decision was in advocacy for your daughter. On behalf of the greater system of public education in this country, I’m dreadfully sorry that you were faced with this predicament.

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