How My Mother Beat the Public School System

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Long before school choice, here's how one woman in a downtrodden district managed to get a good education for her child. 

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My mother was ahead of her time.

Years before school choice become the hot-throttled issue it is now, back in the days of Dallas, Falcon Crest, and ketchup as a school lunch vegetable, my mother created her own school choice program for me, her one and only child. Employing a bit of creative address-keeping, she opted us out of the elementary school the Prince George's County Public School District said I should attend in favor of Magnolia Elementary, a school held in far higher regard by Prince George's County parents.

The decision to choose for herself which school was best for her daughter was not at all a political one for my mother, a committed Democrat who proudly belonged to the Communications Workers of America and sang "Look for the Union Label" around our house. (During the first Barbara Mikulski Senate campaign, my mother tasked me with holding posters at Democratic rallies, prompting me to think about organizing the other kids who'd been forced into political labor that afternoon.) It was a deeply personal choice about her child's future. 

She felt we'd already started with a few strikes against us: she was a single mother with a charmingly deadbeat ex-husband and no college degree. She worked at the telephone company during the day and sold Tupperware at night to balance our household ledger. The least she felt she could do as a mother was to provide the best public schooling she could find, since private school was out of the question financially. And besides, she wanted me to learn that in life, "you won't always be around people just like you."

My mother was very happy with Magnolia Elementary School and its Talented and Gifted Program, as was I, and she employed great administrative resourcefulness to keep me there. At the start, we used the babysitter's addresses (in that, we were not the only ones). Later, for a year or two, my father actually lived in the right district, allowing me to attend school with no obfuscation necessary. After he moved out, we continued using his address, and I stayed after school at a friend's house nearby. This made it somewhat easier to intercept the mailwoman each quarter when she delivered my report card to my father's old house.

I write this so many years later because right now, the school choice debate is leaving out people like my mother: parents who embrace choice because they believe they have no other choice. It is a conversation that happens largely among highly educated people in fancy conference rooms and on lofty campaign platforms, in highbrow publications and among rarefied circles. (I once interviewed with a hedge fund that had candidates debate school choice as part of the application process.) It happens over the heads of poor parents, as if they are too simple to have an opinion on the dilemma they themselves are living. 

That means all that is left is the politics, which each side deploys to its own advantage. Meanwhile, parents like my mother get on with as many jobs as they have and do the best they can for their kids in a country that is, increasingly, far less upwardly mobile than its promise and its past suggest.

I wonder now what my mother would have made of today's school choice discussion and the passions it stirs on all sides. (She passed away not long after I finished elementary school.) I think she would have been surprised to see so many of her fellow self-identifying liberals, usually so sympathetic to cash-strapped parents, fighting to keep her from exercising the choice she felt was her right as a taxpayer and her duty as a mother. 

For my part, I find it remarkable that many who support the status quo with such ardor vigorously exercise their own choice by sending their children to expensive private institutions gated off from public school hoi polloi. But I know my mother also would have found it surprising that people who otherwise think little about poor kids today embrace vouchers with the kind of ideological fervor those on the other side once reserved for the gold standard.

Today's school choice discussion is weighed down with ornate words written by people who have never experienced it. As a result, it obscures the indignities and inequalities that actually exist -- and the reasons why most people will do as much as they can to keep their kids from experiencing them.

There are those who argue that under school choice, poor parents intrepid enough to navigate the system are able to get their children a better education while leaving other kids in sub-par schools. To these people, my mother would have said the stakes were too high for lofty political discussions. The issue at hand was her child's future. If others wanted to wait around for the sub-par to rise, she would have invited them to wait it out with their own kids. And she would have been glad to be an inspiration to other poor parents fighting for better.

I am grateful to say that my mother's dedication paid off. I ended up finishing college -- the first in my immediate family -- and went on to complete a Fulbright, work at ABC News, and earn an MBA. The more elite the opportunity I was offered, the fewer the publicly educated students I encountered. When I counted the number of public universities versus Ivy League institutions feeding into my class at Harvard Business School, I thought immediately of my mother and our old day school dodge-and-weave. She realized early on that opportunity begets opportunity and that it does matter what kind of education you receive. 

My mother ignored the ideology on either side and instead bulldozed her own more level playing field within the public school system. I am sure there are many more parents like her out there right now, paving their own unorthodox way forward, politics be damned.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is contributing editor-at-large for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy program. Her most recent book is The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

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