In the summer of 2019, I received my first internship with a Christian community nonprofit in South Baltimore. One of my main roles as an intern for the nonprofit was creating summer educational programming for the community’s children. During one of our devotional times, I asked a fifth-grade girl to read a passage out of the Bible. To my dismay, her brother took me aside and told me his sister couldn’t read well. I proceeded to encourage another child to read and went to my boss after the class to ask if this was a common occurrence. Sadly, my boss explained low literacy levels were all too common among many of the children. The reason? They were stuck in the local public school, which like many public schools continues the asinine practice of underperforming and undeserving this generation’s youth.
Coming from a family of teachers, I understand the value of a good education. I know how important it was to my family’s economic mobility. Learning that these children in my community lacked access to good schooling was disheartened to say the least. Why were they stuck? Why couldn’t they access more education options? Curiosity got the best of me; so I did as any good Gen-Z member would do: I hopped online and used my research skills to figure it out. Throughout my research, one policy kept cropping up as a primary reason why American children don’t have equal access to education: That was the policy of “residential assignment.”
Residential assignment is the practice of assigning children to their respective schools via their home address. The residential assignment process might not be as extensive a problem if we had an equitable education funding system — where the funding can be used to follow the student’s needs and not the system’s — but we don’t. Funding for schools is mainly based on property taxes. The result? Kids from low-income neighborhoods are placed in low-income schools, while kids from wealthy families in high-income neighborhoods are placed in high-income schools with greater resources allowing the students to perform much better.
This process seems wrong to me, as a young American. Why do we force children from specific neighborhoods to attend worse public schools than children who happen to live in an area where there’s more wealth? In many other areas of life, Americans are provided individualized choices that tailor price, convenience, and location to their specificities. Think clothing, groceries, gas, restaurants and entertainment — for all of these, we get to choose what suits our individual wants and needs. Why is it any different for education?
Many of my peers agree with me, but we’re not alone. Millennials echo these sentiments in support of choice as well; in a study done by GenForward, millennials consistently supported school choice policies across racial and ethnic lines. Still, despite the high support from younger generations and increases in choice with the creation of charter and magnet schools, over 70 percent of students continue to attend their assigned public schools.
Moving forward, to allow children more options at a better education that is individualized to them, we should end residential assignment policies. Even better, we should improve how we finance schools by putting power into families’ hands by funding the student and not the system with Education Savings Accounts. They give students and families education dollars to use toward the school of their choice. In fact, many state legislatures have active legislation for education savings accounts pending right now, which may be passed allowing students immediate access to funds that can help them gain access to an education tailored for them.
Students from the community of South Baltimore and across the country have been negatively affected by residential assignment repercussions and a lack of school choice for far too long. It is time for my generation to put pressure on our failing public school system by advocating for states to act. Implementing Education Savings Accounts and stopping residential assignment is an excellent first step toward an America that increasingly provides quality education access for all, while simultaneously holding the poorly constructed public education system accountable.