By Justin Tilghman
Imagine an overcrowded high school classroom with outdated learning materials and a teacher with little desire to provide these students with a quality education. In this same classroom sits a student unable to read at grade level who has been repeatedly passed onto the next grade.
To hide this fact, the student misbehaves by disrupting class. The school has a zero-tolerance policy, so he gets suspended from class. Upon entering the cycle of school discipline, he eventually drops out and ends up in the criminal justice system.
This scene is repeated in many public schools across our country today, especially in urban communities. Too many students fail to receive the quality education they so desperately need to become contributing members of society. Too often, they quit school and turn to crime as a way of financial means. The ever-present school-to-prison pipeline is riddled with such outcomes. Studies show a lack of education and criminal behavior often go hand-in-hand: Nearly 40% of incarcerated individuals have not completed high school. Data show that without a quality education, the prospect for legitimate work opportunities is limited.
In the wake of several highly publicized school shootings during the 1990s, schools began implementing zero-tolerance policies to combat violence, drugs and weapons. The policies required schools to suspend or expel students for behaviors ranging from bringing a weapon on campus to disturbing class instruction or cutting the lunch line. This policy, while well-intentioned, may have created some harmful unintended consequences.
Children who have trouble comprehending the learning material are often unable to learn in a typical classroom setting and ultimately may use their school time to get into trouble. While students may learn at different rates, if all students receive cookie-cutter instruction then some will inevitably get left behind and use misbehavior to communicate. Instead of providing those experiencing difficulties with a more customized approach, schools often choose discipline, leaving the child unaided and in a cycle of misbehavior.
Unfortunately, many such students in public schools without conducive learning environments lack options. Solely because of their ZIP code, they are “zoned” into the public school within the closest proximity. For some, it means schools in areas infested with drugs and crime. Even the schools working hard to educate in a safe environment can provide only a temporary haven.
For parents striving for a quality education for their children, it is maddening to see their children not getting the education they deserve. Virginia Walden Ford, depicted in the movie, “Miss Virginia,” ultimately chose to take her son out of his failing public school in Washington, D.C. She enrolled him in a private school out of fear that her son would end up in the criminal justice system or dead. Ford understood that her son needed a school which best met his needs and gave him the opportunity to be successful. She realized more children needed such opportunity, and she successfully championed scholarships for D.C.’s public school students.
School choice has proven to be useful in improving graduation rates, post-secondary enrollment and parent satisfaction. Schools of choice can offer students a personalized educational approach as well as benefiting those with specific educational needs that public schools cannot meet.
Former University of Georgia football player Malcolm Mitchell was one student who struggled in school with poor reading skills and found excuses to get out of reading. Mitchell was fortunate, getting into college because of his athletic ability. It was there he learned to read, starting with children’s books. He went on to establish the “Read With Malcolm” initiative promoting literacy for young people across the state.
Virginia Walden’s Ford’s son, who tested below his grade level in public school, became the valedictorian of his private school class. Children learn in different ways. Offering families the education options that meet their student’s needs can be the game-changer that determines a child’s future.
Justin Tilghman, a graduate of the University of Georgia and resident of Stone Mountain, is a 2020 summer intern at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Established in 1991, the Foundation is a trusted, independent resource for voters and elected officials. The Foundation provides actionable solutions to real-life problems by bringing people together. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 14, 2020). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.