School Choice: One Student’s Chance for a Better Life
Hannah Sternberg /
Joseph Kelley knew something was wrong when his son Rashawn flunked first grade.
“I knew he knew his alphabet forward and backward, he knew how to count to 100 forward and backward,” Kelley said. He had taught Rashawn these things himself.
Rashawn’s teachers were surprised to find out that he knew how to read; they hadn’t noticed. At the time, Rashawn was attending a public school in Washington, D.C.
Kelley decided to sit in on his son’s classes to learn the teachers’ vocabulary and techniques so he could tutor Rashawn at home. Kelley was met with hostility from the teachers. “They tried to make me feel guilty,” he said. “They’d say, ‘What does he want? Why is he here?’”
Rashawn’s teachers told Kelley that maybe his son would do better if he backed off. By the end of the year, Rashawn was six months behind his grade in reading comprehension. The school put Rashawn in a special-education class — not for any diagnosed learning disability, just to catch him up.
By fifth grade in the public school system, Rashawn was three years behind in every subject. When Kelley found out the school wasn’t fulfilling the requirements to update his son’s individual education plan every year, he had a court order the school to provide Rashawn with a tutor.
Kelley visited the public high school Rashawn would attend. Violence and intimidation were so bad that eight police officers patrolled the school every day, yet kids were still scared of getting jumped. Kelley had been bullied as a child, and was determined that his son would not have to face the same thing.
That was when Kelley heard about the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), a need-based school choice program introduced in 2004 to provide children with scholarships to attend the private schools of their parents’ choice. Kelley calls the program a “blessing.” “God knows what I would have done without it,” he said.
During a visit to Kelley’s house last week, Rashawn was coming home from his first day of classes at the University of the District of Columbia. After switching to a private school with the help of the OSP, Rashawn caught up to his grade level within two years. His father said teachers were welcoming and receptive to him attending his son’s classes. Rashawn graduated high school and is excited for the start of his college career. His eyes shine when he talks about one day running his own business.
Now Kelley’s three daughters are attending private high school with the help of the scholarships. They all plan on going to college.
Kelley said his father had only a third-grade education. He had insisted that his children finish high school so they could have better lives. Now, Kelley insists, his kids need a college degree to succeed.
“Nothing has changed in the public schools in the last 12 years,” he said. He doesn’t understand why the public schools of the nation’s capital are so broken, or why the extremely popular scholarship program was almost shut down due to political pressure in 2010. He visited Congress and asked senators at that time whether they’d ever visited any of the high schools like the one Rashawn almost attended. None of them had.
Thanks to the united efforts of parents and their supporters, the scholarship program was reauthorized, but like school choice programs everywhere, it still faces challenges from strong and connected political opponents.
Joseph Kelley used the word “blessing” repeatedly to describe the program. If you saw him talk to his son about his first day at college, you’d know why.