My Urban School Failed Me: Why I Advocate for School Choice

On Wednesday July 14th, Missouri took a huge step forward in ensuring that all students have a chance at a quality education. Parents, students, advocates, and educators surrounded Governor Mike Parson as he signed the legislation into law. I was one of them.

Growing up in inner city Kansas City, education options were as uncommon as two-parent households. You were required to attend the school that was assigned no matter how bad it performed. Fast forward 15 years and things have changed dramatically—for the worse.

It seems that no matter what is suggested or changed, performance continues to decline even as attendance increases. Calls for more funding have been answered yet urban schools find themselves facing the same challenges every year—fewer students reaching their full potential in English and Math. But just how bad is it and what can be done to change it?

Last year, I came across a report that brought tears to my eyes. It was about my alma mater, Central High School in Kansas City, which has been a staple in inner city KC for decades despite its failures. In 2019, according to DESE (Department of Early and Secondary Education), only 12% of its students were at or above grade level in English. That number is only 0.8% for mathematics. Simply put, only four out of the school’s 500 students are on grade level or above in Math. Four. It’s truly heartbreaking to know that urban students are stripped of their potential at the hands of the very people that sign up to help them succeed.

Now that isn’t a dig at teachers. As a student at Central, I had teachers that went to great lengths to ensure that we didn’t go without or miss out on any of our high school experiences.

This is not about educators but about a system—a system that has watched as inner city children, mostly Black children, fail before they’re even allowed to leave the starting blocks for the past 70+ years. The same system that tells them to stay put in a burning building until “we fix it.”

Well, who is “we” and just when are they going to fix it? When will Missouri’s most vulnerable students start to matter to this faceless system? When do urban kids get their chance at life?

The answer is now.

Thanks to legislators this last session, Missouri followed the lead of numerous states and passed an ESA bill. The bill (HB 349) was sponsored by state representative Phil Christofanelli (R- District 105) and barely passed through the House before soaring through the Senate a little over a month later. The bill creates Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (commonly known as Education Scholarship Accounts) that will be funded by state tax credits. If qualified, parents may use funds for a number of things including tutoring, tools to help better serve their children, and most importantly, private school tuition.

While test scores continue to decline for urban students, the number of urban private schools continues to grow. Churches and community leaders are waking up to the damage that has been done to urban kids and are stepping up to the plate to offer solutions to kids in their community, and it couldn’t come at a better time. Programs such as this will go on to allow parents the chance to finally free their children from the multitude of things that a poor education robs from them. It will allow parents to better afford alternative options to traditional public schools. It will apply pressure, forcing the bleeding to stop.

School choice is truly the key that will bring about educational change today. Urban kids can’t continue to wait for every star in the universe to perfectly align before their voices are heard and changes are made. Our community continues to suffer as those who have the power to change the status quo ignore our cries.

The one silver lining in Missouri being so far behind on this issue is that we have so many models to show the effectiveness of these kinds of programs on a multitude of levels. Places such as Florida, Louisiana, and Washington DC, are known for the success of their school choice programs. Not only have these programs saved students but they’ve also saved states cold hard cash. It’s been reported that Georgia GOAL, a tax credit program, saved the state $53.2 million in the 2018-2019 school year.

Throughout my decade-long political career a lot has come and gone, and thanks to a variety of parents, activists, and education institutes, school choice is here to stay. The Show-Me state finally has the tools to level the playing field ensuring that lower income students are no longer imprisoned by their zip codes. No longer will students be beholden to a terrible school simply because it’s in close proximity to that child’s house. Missouri now has Education Equality.