How My Mother Beat the Public School System

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. 

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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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