Few things matter more to parents than ensuring their children have a high-quality education that equips them with the tools and experiences necessary to succeed. Lower income parents are keenly aware that a quality education may be the only way for their children to overcome a lifetime of low-wage, dead-end jobs and crime. Given that illiteracy plagues more than 80% of all juveniles in the criminal justice system, school systems that fail to equip children with basic reading skills rob them of a lifetime of opportunity.
Prior to COVID-19 Texas Black students represented roughly 13% of the total student population but the highest dropout rate, were most likely to be referred to special education programs, and had the lowest scores on standardized tests across all grades and subjects. While 77% of Asian students, 55% of white students, and 37% of Latino students met the grade level requirements for 8th grade math, only 29% of Black students tested grade level. Families in the Black and Brown communities are keenly aware of the school-to-prison pipeline. Failing schools create a thriving criminal justice system.
The Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention research suggests that education and school attendance are normal developmental milestones for youth and can serve as important protective factors against delinquency and involvement in the juvenile justice system. They can also have long-term positive effects on employment and desistance from crime. Expanding school options beyond the traditional public setting allows parents the freedom to select the educational institutions that are best suited to meet the needs of their children.
Virginia Walden Ford recognized that her son’s school was contributing to what she worried would be a precarious future. A single mother living in a neighborhood flanked by failing schools, she refused to lose him to the streets. With a mother’s might, she forged a movement to broaden educational opportunities for lower-income families in Washington D.C. That fortitude was the key to Congress eventually authorizing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. As a result, thousands of children have been afforded the opportunity to attend private schools that better meet their needs.
Every child deserves that chance. Yet, Texas remains one of the worst states in the country for parent empowerment, providing among the fewest educational options for families. Public school choice through open enrollment is severely limited. Unlike in 38 other states, Texas families must pay tuition to attend a neighboring school district. Online education, a crucial option when schools must close due to a pandemic, was crippled by a 2013 legislative moratorium. Out of 1,254 school districts, only five are even permitted to offer full-time online schooling. While charter schools continue to thrive, the waitlists exceed 140,000 children. And, unlike the majority of states, including three of our neighbors, private school choice is non-existent in Texas.
Education is the civil rights movement of our time. The Texas Constitution says that suitable provisions must be made “for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” With student outcomes like the ones above, however, our Black students desperately need reforms to the current system.