Mobility Barriers and the Illusion of School Choice
Today’s blog comes from Jon Hanover, our Head of Marketplace here at HopSkipDrive. Like many on the HopSkipDrive team, Jon joined us from the education space. Here’s a powerful story about his encounter with the unkept promise of school choice in his Denver community.
Emily was a tall, gregarious 3rd grader, and I was her elementary school principal.
Emily wanted to be a journalist when she grew up. She spent recess with a close group of friends who would write stories together in brightly colored pens.
One day, Emily’s parents came into my office to tell me they’d lost their Northeast Denver housing. Like many inner-city neighborhoods nationwide, ours was experiencing rapid demographic change. Emily’s father told me their landlord had doubled their rent overnight. They were already barely getting by, and now the family was forced to break their lease and move in with family members a few miles away until they could get back on their feet.
Emily’s parents wanted to keep Emily at our school—they wanted the world for Emily and were especially eager to give her as much stability and support as possible during this difficult time—but they had no reliable way to get her to school. The commute was only a few miles further than the one from their old apartment, but they didn’t own a car, and would have had to spend three hours on five public buses each day to pull it off. They worked four jobs between them and simply didn’t have time.
There was a school across the street from the new place. It wasn’t as highly rated. Her parents knew it would be hard on Emily to change schools. But they settled, because they didn’t have a choice.
Choice. Public education has traditionally provided neighborhood schools, but has not provided families the opportunity to have a say in where their kids receive their education, which has allowed affluent families to choose quality schools for their children by buying homes in highly desirable boundary communities. In 2012, however, Denver Public Schools began to support School Choice, allowing any family to choose to enroll their children in any school in the city. I was proud of this important move in the direction of educational equity, but when I learned about the mobility challenges students like Emily still face, I realized we have more work to do.
It’s increasingly clear that the promise of choice is an illusion for many families, especially the ones choice was intended to help the most. In theory, Emily’s family could have chosen to keep her enrolled at our school, but that choice evaporated when they were confronted with limited mobility options. Put simply: if you can’t get your kid to the school of your choice, you don’t really have school choice. By not providing transportation for Emily and thousands of kids like her, we have inadvertently re-created a version of the old system where affluent families have privileged access to great schools. The only difference is that mobility has replaced real estate as the barrier to equity.
How do we give families and communities like Emily’s the choice they were promised? There are two problems we need to solve. The first is a logistical one: as families increasingly choose schools outside of their immediate neighborhoods, the paths children take to school become increasingly complex. We need to develop a more flexible mode of youth transportation.
Fortunately, there is a new mode of youth transport that is addressing that challenge. HopSkipDrive is a reliable, safe solution designed specifically for kids and the communities entrusted with transporting them. By combining cutting-edge technology with industry-leading practices in trust and safety, HopSkipDrive has developed a way of safely and efficiently transporting kids like Emily to their schools of choice. It’s a valuable, proven new tool for any district committed to delivering on the promise of equitable school choice. That’s why, when HopSkipDrive expanded to Denver, I jumped at the opportunity to join the team and be a part of the solution to the problem Emily’s family faced.
The second problem worth solving is a political one: officials in school choice states must develop and fund programs to ensure that transportation is not a barrier to true choice, especially for under-resourced youth. It’s no small task, but now that we have a solution to the logistical problem, school choice districts are more empowered than ever to deliver on their promise and give all kids access to great schools.
Emily is counting on us.