THE BLOG
02/15/2017 12:17 pm ET

Parents Can't Wait For Traditional Schools To Fix Themselves. That's Why We Choose Charters.

My parents didn't play by the rules of the public education system. I'm so grateful they didn't.

As immigrants from Colombia and Brazil, my father and mother recognized that education was the only way out for their children. They managed to scrape together enough money to send me and my sister to Catholic school. They believed it was my best chance at a quality education in our working class Southern California neighborhood. They were right.

But I was a kid with an undiagnosed learning disability, and by the time I reached high school, I wasn't living up to that school's expectations. After failing several classes, I was kicked out.

My poor mother almost had a heart attack. This was the 1980s. Although we lived on a "good" street, gangs ruled neighboring streets and drug sales were brisk business. My local high school was a gateway to crime and troubles that my parents desperately wanted me to avoid. Even with her limited English and her lack of sophistication about her adopted country, my mother feared that if I enrolled in the neighborhood traditional school, I would likely become victimized by the crime and violence that had engulfed so many other local kids.

My parents didn't play by the rules of the public education system. I'm so grateful they didn't.

So, my mom did what any parent would do: she begged the principal at my all-girls Catholic high school to give me another chance. The principal, a nun, refused to give me another chance.

My mom responded by doing what many parents are willing to do: she lied about our home address so I could attend a better, "white" school in a nearby city. Fortunately, we never got caught, and I graduated from high school. If my parents had played by the rules, I'm not sure where I would be today.

While I understand the rules of the traditional public education system - go to the nearest school, no matter how bad it is, and no matter what kind of trouble it might lead to - I don't agree with them. I believe every parent should have the right to expect more and to seek out the right school for their children, just as mine did. And just as I would later do for my children.

Years later, as a single mother, I found myself trying desperately to find exceptional schools for my kids in a world of sky high rents. When my job took me to a new city, I would once again begin the mad scramble to find the cheapest place to live within the boundaries of the nearest top-notch school district. It wasn't easy, but I did my research. And while I often lived beyond my means, I usually found a way to get by in the wealthy neighborhoods with the "right" zip codes - where schools were good.

How could I explain that to ensure they received a quality education, we needed to live among folks who were, in so many ways, unlike us?

I did it for my kids, but it didn't come without a price. In a couple of cases, my kids were the outsiders at school and their playdates in mansions or beach houses often caused tension. They would come home with tales of lives lived extravagantly with bedrooms the size of our entire apartment and all the material things a child could ever want. How could I explain why our lives were different? How could I explain that to ensure they received a quality education, we needed to live among folks who were, in so many ways, unlike us?

During my years as a Chicago Tribune education reporter, I found out how typical our problems were. I met countless parents who were in the exact same circumstances, doing everything they could to find a better school than the one that was assigned to them. Covering the third largest school district in the country showed me the brokenness and inequity of the traditional public school system. It was heartbreaking to walk into poorly run schools and classrooms and see how many children were getting shortchanged and not receiving the education they deserved.

Of course, there were bright spots; some urban traditional schools were succeeding despite the odds. But they were the exception, not the rule. Most principals were still unwilling or unable to experiment, take risks, push boundaries and bet on their kids' capacity for success. Few educators were committed enough to tell every student within their school walls that each one of them deserved to attend college, and then to do everything necessary to help those students achieve that goal.

In Chicago, seventh grade is a critical, "make-or-break-it" year. That's the year when a student's grades, attendance and standardized test scores determine whether he or she will get into the city's selective enrollment and magnet high schools. If you get one of these coveted spots, you basically just won the lottery in life. This is, of course, yet another glaring example of the system's lack of fairness: only some kids are "lucky" enough to go to the good schools.

I'm the first to admit that the charter school my daughter attended wasn't perfect ... But I have no doubt that my daughter received a better education at the charter than she would have at the school to which she would have been assigned.

When it comes to my children, I'm not much of a gambler and as my daughter approached high school, I was already considering moving back to Southern California to live closer to my mother. I found a great, arts-focused, charter public school that wasn't exactly close to my new home, but worth the drive.

We made the move and my daughter graduated from this high school. My son, on the other hand, graduated from the traditional public high school in my home district. They were both fortunate to receive an education that suited their individual needs, talents and personality. My youngest, in third grade, attends a traditional public school.

I'm the first to admit that the charter school my daughter attended wasn't perfect. And we've all heard stories about charters that fall far short of the promise they make to their communities. But I have no doubt that my daughter received a better education at the charter than she would have at the school to which she would have been assigned. It was just a better fit for her.

Last year I joined the California Charter Schools Association. Our mission is simple: to make sure that more parents have the right to choose a high quality public school for their kids.

Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time fighting political battles, just to protect parents' right to demand better. There is so much rhetoric out there demonizing the concept of school choice and the families who rely on it.

I don't get too caught up in the rhetoric, probably because my personal experiences tell the real story of school choice: my mom lying to get me into a better school, my own desperate dash to find an affordable home in a strong school district, the struggling Chicago parents who prayed that their children would win the "lottery" and attend a great high school.

Against this stark background, the politics and rhetoric are hollow and petty. After all, as many moms like me have found, what matters most is whether we can find the best schools for our kids.

If the neighborhood public school is not delivering, why shouldn't we have another alternative? Why should they any parent be forced to sacrifice their children to a broken system?

In my mind, there's no time to wait. Our kids deserve a chance. Not in a decade, not in a year, but now.

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