By car, a distance that can easily be covered in under 10 minutes. Yet, in many respects, those same 4 1/2 miles represent something else, something worlds apart. Four-and-half miles represent the difference between bright futures filled with opportunities and cloudy futures filled with struggle, frustration and unrealized potential.
Kenna Elementary is, by objective metrics, a wonderful elementary school. 96.8 percent of its fourth-graders met the state’s mathematics standard, while nearly 81 percent met the English language arts standard. On the other hand, Mary C. Snow Elementary is struggling. By comparison, 9.3 percent of its fourth-grade students are meeting the state’s mathematics standard, and only 2.3 percent meet the standard in English language arts. Those numbers are excruciatingly, frustratingly bad.
However, Kenna Elementary and Mary C. Snow Elementary differ in other extremely important ways. The ZIP code within which Kenna Elementary (25314) is located has a median household income of nearly $84,000, while the ZIP code within which Mary C. Snow Elementary (25302) is located has a median household income of less than half of that, at barely over $41,000. The median home value in 25314 is nearly $211,000, while the median home value in 25302 is nearly $113,000. Over 85 percent of Mary C. Snow’s students qualify for free or reduced lunches, compared to slightly less than 22 percent of Kenna’s students.
These are very real disparities, and there can be little doubt that they have a huge effect on respective educational outcomes, but the question is what to do about it?
First, let us dispense with a pervasive myth. Traditional public schools are by no means “free.” There is a tuition cost to Kenna Elementary, and it is the ability to afford a residence in 25314. If you cannot afford that house payment, your child will not be attending Kenna Elementary or similar schools, such as Holz or Overbrook. For all intents and purposes, the poorest children in West Virginia are trapped in the learning environment and school based on the mortgage or rent payment their parents can afford.
Now, it would be wise to ask some version of the following question: Is Kenna Elementary simply a “better school” because it is receiving students with fewer social, cultural and economic roadblocks to learning? After all, it is true that a child can focus on schoolwork when he knows he has a warm dinner waiting for him, two parents eager to ask how his day went upon his arrival home and started his day sated from a breakfast lovingly made by his mother or father. About that, there can be little doubt.
However, what about the child coming to school from a loving, relatively stable, yet low-income, single-parent home? What about the child that is a witness — or subjected — to violent behavior by his peers on a frequent basis but whose parents only make $25,000 a year? What about a special-needs child whose parents feel that he isn’t experiencing the learning environment that would optimize his educational experience, but his parents cannot afford to move to the better school district? Sadly, thousands of children across West Virginia face some version of these scenarios every single day.
Are these children less deserving of a quality educational environment simply because their parents aren’t as far up the socioeconomic ladder?
This is where education choice — charter schools and education savings accounts — can help ... immensely. Under the status quo in West Virginia, families with limited financial resources have zero options to help them attain a better, more suitable education. Imagine yourself in the shoes of a poverty-level mother whose child is bullied every day. What are your options? Apart from praying for a teacher or principal who can — and will — solve the problem, the options for those families are non-existent in West Virginia.
Yet, there are millions of children across the United States who have access to a different way, some of whom have had access to education choice for decades. West Virginia must wake up to the fact that its system is an educational dinosaur and a moral disaster.
West Virginia can liberate thousands of futures and afford hope to those who can least to afford to buy it. Education choice will disentangle the absurd, morally bankrupt knot of brighter futures and richer ZIP codes.