It should tell you all you need to know about Detroit Public Schools that my father, who teaches in the district, wouldn’t let me attend school there.

Sarah Royce

The summer before my sophomore year of high school, my family had just moved from Inkster to Detroit, and I needed a new high school. We tried Detroit’s holy trinity – Cass Technical, King and Renaissance – but were rebuffed because my family had moved too late to take the placement exam. Although my dad had been with Detroit schools for nearly 15 years at that point, his child was denied the chance to attend three of the city’s best schools on a technicality that had no bearing on said child’s qualifications or capacity for success.

Detroit’s teachers were locked in a labor dispute with the administration that summer, as if my family needed yet more evidence that Detroit Public Schools were thoroughly unprepared and disinterested in providing me with a quality education. Any school district willing to penny pinch its teachers while leaving classrooms overcrowded and teachers without resources certainly wasn’t going to prepare me to attend college.

Fortunately, my father happened to know the then-principal of West Bloomfield High School, Dr. George Fornero. He spoke on my behalf to the superintendent, an old-school liberal who wasn’t about to deny a motivated kid from Detroit with equally supportive parents the opportunity to attend his school. Fast forward three years – during which my frames of reference and work ethic were challenged in a way my college education has failed to keep pace with – and I was accepted at the University.

My own experience – as a student who would have been failed by his neighborhood school and as one forced to look to the suburbs for quality education – has made me a believer in school choice. I’ve heard a lot of well-meaning theory and platitudes about how neighborhood schools should be able to satisfy their students’ educational needs, and how something should be done to make that happen. The fact is, though, that if the anti-school-choice crowd had it their way, I would’ve gone to one of the worst high schools in Michigan rather than one of the best in the nation. My future would’ve been decided by geography rather than ability.

I lucked out, but my concern turns to those who aren’t so lucky. Not everyone in Detroit had a parent enrolled in grad school courses taught by the principal of one of Michigan’s best high schools. Not everyone has parents willing or able to handle a commute that takes more than an hour a day or to absorb the transportation costs implicit in that commute. Not everyone has the chance to attend school in West Bloomfield.

In this post-Proposal 2, world-is-flat era, we must subject public schools to the same cold scrutiny that their graduates will receive upon entering the workforce. In a world where our high school graduates will be made to compete for admission to college – not only against other Michiganders or other Americans, but against the best the world has to offer – education is one of our only opportunities to give students a leg up. But to allow failing schools a monopoly on those living nearby is the height of unfairness; no child should have his future mortgaged on a geographic lottery with the odds fixed against him.

I wrote shortly after the election that Michigan’s passage of Proposal 2 offered a great opportunity so long as we’re honest about what it meant. Back then, the issue was University President Mary Sue Coleman’s delusion that she could litigate affirmative action preferences back into existence (although the University filed a motion in court yesterday, it’s Proposal 2’s timetable, not its legality, that is at issue). Today, though, we must understand that the mandate of 58 percent of Michiganders to “level the playing field” in college admissions must be matched by the commitment to ensure equality of opportunity at the K-12 level. It’s an absurdity even to speak of level playing fields until every student in Michigan has the opportunity to receive a quality education.

I wonder if, in our idealistic urge to provide equal opportunity, we’re ready to move beyond the outdated paradigm that neighborhood schools should receive the sole opportunity to educate those living nearby. I wonder how committed we really are, as a state, to leaving no child behind.

James Dickson can be reached at davidjam@umich.edu.

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