Op-Ed

Progressive, affluent parents who send their kids to good schools shouldn’t deny others that right

A student raises her hand with the answer to a question at a Pasco County charter school.
A student raises her hand with the answer to a question at a Pasco County charter school. Tampa Bay Times file

I’ve been a card-carrying member of the ACLU for years; a battle-hardened advocate for the disadvantaged and downtrodden ever since I joined Students Against Apartheid in 1988. I helped bring recycling to the University of South Florida, protested nuclear power and marched on Washington to support women’s rights. I volunteered for the Bernie Sanders campaign and serve on the board of Moms Demand Action for gun sense.

Simply put, I’m a progressive.

So it troubles me deeply to hear self-styled progressives attack educational options that other parents choose for their children. Worse, these attacks on the educational choices that lower-income parents and parents of children with special needs make almost always come from progressives of higher means.

We have a recommendation for that: Check your privilege.

I support educational choice for all.

Educational options have existed for the wealthy for as long as anyone can remember. What’s controversial is when we suggest that those same options should be open to everyone.

I saw so many fellow warriors marching for women recently, proudly holding signs that said, “If you can’t trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?” To those who would limit women’s rights in other areas, I have another question.

A woman can choose an abortion, but not her child’s school?

But we will not go back.

We will not go back to a system where parents are imprisoned by their Zip code. We will not go back to a time when education was based on where we live, rather than how we learn.

Most of those fighting educational choice are like me. They’ve worked hard to make a life for their familes and are now privileged, living in a valued neighborhood and sending their kids to whatever school works for them. We shouldn’t apologize for that, we love our children and want what’s best for them.

But why, then, would they deny that same right to low-income parents?

Education is the most reliable way out of generational poverty. Why stand in the way of other parents yearning to be as free?

Do those who say, “I believe in free public schools,” really believe it knowing how much parents pay in mortgages or rent just to get into those schools?

Do those who say, “Public schools take all students,” really believe it knowing hundreds of parents every year are fined or arrested for lying about their home address to get their child into those schools?

Critics make one false claim after another about choice programs, which aren’t backed by evidence. They say that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, now serving 107,000 low-income students statewide, is draining money from public schools when every single fiscal impact study of the program shows otherwise. They also say that private schools participating in the program are cherry-picking the highest performing kids, when every single study shows they’re actually enrolling —and helping — the kids who struggled most in public schools.

These critics seem to have no problem with selective magnet schools and IB programs. Could it be because their kids are the ones who benefit the most from those selective choice programs?

We will not allow adults’ needs to overshadow children’s needs. Opponents have told me countless times that educational choice steals funding and students that belong to districts. They’re wrong. Funding belongs to the students, and those students have parents.

We will not stop until every child in Florida who needs an option, has one. We won’t go back.

Catherine Durkin Robinson, a former schoolteacher, is the executive director of Florida Parent Network.

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