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Why school choice should be about possibility — not partisanship

July 14, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s mother — a union Democrat who worked at the phone company during the day and sold Tupperware at night — lied about her address so Lemmon could attend a better elementary school. Lemmon talks about her own experience with school choice and why she now sees it not as an "issue,” but as a matter of life and death.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon usually reports for us from the other side of the world, covering stories such as the refugee crisis and child marriage.

Tonight, she shares her Humble Opinion about something closer to home and much more personal.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, Author: School choice. Those two words spark a whole host of emotions from people across the political spectrum.

As a kid, I never heard the words school choice uttered. But they did indeed shape my childhood. You see, my mom was a single mom, a union Democrat who worked at the phone company during the day and sold tupperware at night, at least on the nights when she wasn’t studying for her college degree.

She frequented yard sales, grocery-shopped with double coupons, and knew her way around the Marshalls layaway window. And she lied about our address, so that I could attend what she judged to be the best public elementary school in our area.

In a number of states, that is seen as a felony. In fact, parents across the country regularly face jail time and huge fines for what my mom did, really. Parents are facing prison to give their children possibilities, possibilities that area given for upper-middle-class and wealthy families, families that can exercise their own school choice because they have the means to choose what and where is best for their kids.

As a kid, it didn’t occur to me that using a baby-sitter’s address or an address where my dad used to live before the bank took his property back was wrong. It was what was required, do-it-yourself school choice to make more choices down the road possible.

And it worked. The good school my mom got me into, gave me a great start for the rest of my education. I went to a good college. From there, I had the privilege of becoming a Fulbright Scholar, and that helped lead me to Harvard Business School. But along the way, I saw just how narrow the funnel that leads to the nation’s elite institutions truly is.

The thing that strikes me now is that all that I have had the privilege of learning and doing and undertaking since then is because I had a mom who understood that education was the best anti-poverty vaccination she could give me and the best shot at class mobility she had to offer.

For many moms and dads, school choice is not an issue, it’s not partisan. It is about possibilities and a chance to give kids the springboard they need to vault over class barriers and toward the best future they can build.

And that future is something in which every one of us has a stake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, we thank you.

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