Photo courtesy of Miller-McCune

It’s hard to blame anyone who doesn’t have a full view of the pernicious consequences of Zip Code Education policies on perpetuating the nation’s education crisis for arguing, as Natalie Hopkinson, the founding editor of online magazine The Root, does in Monday’s New York Times op-ed, against school choice. Complaining about the closing of middle schools in her community in the Northwest section of Washington, D.C., Hopkinson blames the state of affairs on the expansion of charter schools and other choice efforts. From where she sits, expansion of school choice (along with the reform efforts of former D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty and his chancellor, Michelle Rhee) have led to “a cynical game” in which “some will keep winning” while poor and middle class families “will lose”.

Of course, Hopkinson’s piece proved to be the kind of clip that education traditionalists — who do know better — use to argue that expanding school choice is not worth doing. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, in a debate on Twitter between herself, CNN commentator (and Capital Prep Magnet School principal) Dr. Steve Perry, and yours truly, declared that the piece was “heartbreaking”, she latter declared that Hopkinson’s piece proved “the terrible effects of closing rather then fixing schools”.

But to those who know better, Hopkinson’s argument doesn’t even ring true. It is spectacularly flawed and shortsighted — especially given that Hopkinson is a reporter, and thus has the kind of skills most parents don’t have to  get a full sense of what is really happening in both the District and throughout the nation.

For one, the example she offers of the shiny new middle school in the city’s Rock Creek section of town that her child can’t attend isn’t a consequence of school choice. That is a result of zoned schooling policies — Zip Code Education rules — that restrict families from accessing high-quality options within traditional districts. (More on this later in the piece.) Certainly, this is an issue that current Mayor Vincent Gray and his schools czar, Kaya Henderson could easily address if they so choose (as predecessors Fenty and Rhee could have also done) by transforming D.C. Public Schools into an intra-district choice system in which any child can attend any school they want.

The second problem? That she links the shutdowns of traditional schools to the expansion of charters without considering that D.C.’s school enrollment had been in free-fall for decades. Enrollment at McKinley Technical High School, for example, declined from 2,400 students to around 500 by the time it was originally shut down in 1997 (it was re-opened in 2004). In fact, enrollment in the District’s traditional school system declined from 124,939 in the 1959-1960 school year to 80,450 in 2004-5005, just before the first charter schools were opened; enrollment declined by 6 percent between 1986-1987 and 2004-2005. In short, school closings were already likely to happen because the traditional district had been losing students to the suburban districts across from the Potomac.

Meanwhile Hopkinson acts as if the schools that were closed in her neighborhood were worthy of any child’s future, much less her own. This isn’t the case. Before Fenty took control of D.C. Public Schools and brought in Rhee to start its overhaul, the school system had the dubious position of being the Superfund Site (and proverbial toxic waste dump) of American public education. D.C. Public Schools’ fourth- and eighth-graders ranked last in reading and math on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, while two out of every five high school freshmen who were part of the district’s Class of 2005 dropped out before graduation. Only nine out of every 100 high school freshmen were likely to graduate from both high school and college. This status was likely true even back in the city’s Jim Crow era, when black students were segregated from white students and thus, couldn’t access what was at the time could be considered a high-quality education — and definitely true after the suburban flight of middle class whites and blacks into the Virginia and Maryland suburbs during the 1960s and 1970s.

The abysmal quality of D.C.’s traditional public schools — and the inability of poor and minority parents to get their kids the high-quality education they deserved — is why Virginia Walden Ford launched the District’s initial Parent Power movement to provide families high-quality school choices, including the move to allow for creation of charter schools in 1995 and the launch of the D.C. Opportunity voucher program six years later. These efforts, along with several failed reorganizations of D.C. Public Schools under its then-independent school board and a federally-appointed panel, forced the overhaul of D.C. Public Schools that began four years ago when then-mayor Fenty took control of the district and brought in Rhee to oversee those initial steps. This is an effort Gray, has admirably kept in place to the displeasure of the American Federation of Teachers’ local that backed his successful campaign against Fenty in order to stem them in the first place.

Then there is the fact that Hopkinson’s argument doesn’t square with the reality that D.C. residents can easily access high-quality middle schools (traditional, charter or otherwise) within their own areas. If you live on the Northwest side of town near the Shaw metro (and not so far away from Rock Creek Park), you can avoid sending your child to the zoned district school, Alice Deal Middle (which is in its second year of official status as being in improvement) or the bottom basement Shaw Middle School (where as many as three out of every four kids don’t exceed the District’s reading and math standards). Instead, you can enroll him in Howard University Middle School, one of the Center City Public Charter School branches — a former Catholic school converted into a charter just a few years ago — a Community Academy charter school, or  even one of KIPP’s charter schools. All of those choices are just minutes away from the Shaw metro, and, unlike Alice Deal, don’t require a (still easy) 16 minute commute.

This is also true if you live in the District’s southeast section, including Anacostia. This area, by the way, has long been poorly served by D.C.’s traditional public school system.  Instead of attending any of the traditional district middle schools, a parent can send their kid to a KIPP, another Center City charter (in Congress Heights), or one of the Achievement Prep academies. If you want to drive your kid (or if your child wants to get up and catch Metro’s buses and subways early enough) you can also send your kid to any charter school in the city. If your family qualifies, your child may even get a voucher from the recently-revived D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and attend any of the city’s parochial and private schools; the Catholic schools, in particular, are not only affordable within the voucher, but have proven consistently to offer high-quality teaching and curricula.

Certainly the options are nowhere as extensive or robust as they should be. D.C. Public Schools is still undergoing systemic reform. The fact that parents have to wait on lotteries instead of simply enrolling their child into a charter school points to the need for the District to do all it can within reason to authorize more high-quality charters and bring in top-notch charter school operators such as Green Dot and Rocketship into communities. It also points to the need to expand the D.C. Opportunity voucher program, which only serves 1,615 of the District’s poorest children.

At the same time, the reality is that D.C. families  have greater opportunities to provide their kids with high-quality education than they did when Virginia Walden Ford lived in the district back in the 1990s. With 37 percent of students attending the District’s charter schools — and Gray and Henderson continuing the reforms started by Fenty and Rhee four years ago — these opportunities are continuing to expand. And now, thanks to the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s move today to launch a new school data system, families will now have more-comprehensive information on the quality of charter schools; this allows them to avoid those charters that don’t deserve to exist and pick those that do — and ultimately, help them make smart choices for their kids.

But at least Hopkinson and her fellow D.C. residents have opportunities to escape the worst American public education offers. Unfortunately for poor and middle class families — especially minority households — throughout the rest of the country (including the supposedly tony Virginia and Maryland suburbs outside of D.C.) — there are almost no choices at all. And, as seen in the cases of Stratford, Conn., grandmother Marie Menard, Bridgeport’s Tanya McDowell, and Kelley Williams-Bolar in Akron, Ohio — all of whom have either been indicted or convicted of what can only laughingly be called stealing education — poor and minority families have to fight hard, harder than they ever should, just to help their kids get good-to-great teachers and rigorous, high-quality, curricula.

Contrary to Hopkinson’s assertions, the problem lies not with school choice. It is the lack of choice that relegates families to schools that aren’t worthy of their children’s futures. Thanks to Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling (along with restrictions on expansion of school choice that are supported by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and suburban districts), families throughout this nation are denied opportunities to help their kids succeed in school and in life.

The perniciousness of Zip Code Education can easily be seen when one looks at the vibrancy of high-quality choices for everyone (including poor families) in an aspect of life in which the stakes are incredibly low: The restaurant sector. A poor family in Dropout Nation‘s home base of Alexandria, Va., may not be able to afford to eat at Bonefish Grill, the high-end Vermillion, or even the tony French restaurant Bastille (where a four-course meal can start at $55 for each diner). But they can enjoy a high-quality meal at a Red Lobster or (one of my favorite spots), Shooter McGee’s. And if they save enough money, they can also dine at Bonefish, Vermillion, or even Bastille without any restriction.

This is not true in American public education. Because of the Zip Code Education policies that predominate today, poor families are restricted to failure mills in their neighborhoods, while middle class families (especially those who are minority or the first in their generation to achieve such status) are often restricted to warehouses of mediocrity whose shiny new buildings hide laggard instruction and low expectations for poor white, black and Latino kids. As University of Michigan Associate Professor Karyn Lacey noted in Blue-Chip Black, her sociological study of middle-class black families in the suburbs surrounding the nation’s capital, black families living in Fairfax County found themselves battling teachers and guidance counselors who wanted to relegate children to academic tracks that keep them from getting high-paying white- and blue-collar jobs. And throughout this country, these families are often not informed about their options for preparing their kids for success in school and in life, including opportunities to take Advanced Placement courses or participate in the growing number of dual-credit programs that allow them to take community college courses that they can use for getting ready for the rigors of higher education.

Unlike in a market situation, no family regardless of their income can purchase their way into a high-quality traditional public school (when one is available) unless they choose to then engage in the expensive effort of buying a new home in a different community. Since districts often arbitrarily change their zoning policies, even moving residences doesn’t guarantee that you will get into one of the few high-quality traditional schools for which you made such a move. Nor do intra-district choice as currently structured — in the form of magnet schools that are really set up to meet federal desegregation orders — do the job because there are quotas on the number of students from each race, ethnicity, and economic background who can get in (and more often, depend on the political clout of families — and the poor have little of it).

If you are a middle-class black or Latino family who, say, wants to also make sure your child attends a school in which your kids get high-quality education and still get the exposure they need to their own race and ethnicity to help build self-pride, you may even have to go so far as pay out of pocket for private schools — even when you are paying $5,000 or more every year to support traditional public schools that your children won’t attend. Same is true for white middle-class families who realize that their children are being placed on the general academic track that doesn’t provide them the college-preparatory learning they need to succeed in college and career. And for poor families, if they can scrounge up the cash, they may be able to send their kid to one of the few Catholic schools that may still be open in their communities. Otherwise, they are completely out of luck.

Contrary to Hopkinson’s myopic, flawed piece — and the disingenuous assertions of Weingarten and other education traditionalists — the lack of widely-available school choice is what is truly heartbreaking. When we tell four out of every five children that they must stay in schools that fail their futures, this is not only a tragedy, it is morally and intellectually reprehensible. And it is especially heartbreaking that poor families have wider choices in restaurants than in high-quality schools that can nurture the proverbial soft heads of their young geniuses.

We need more high-quality choices for our kids so they can have brighter futures in an increasingly knowledge-based economy in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands. And that’s plain and simple.

Note: There are folks who argue that school choice can take away from efforts at systemically reforming traditional public schools. This isn’t so. If anything, it will take numerous solutions — including overhauling how teachers are trained and compensated within traditional districts, along with expanding school choice — in order to help all kids succeed in school and in life. We have to get away from the deficit mentality that is often a feature of discussions about reform.