Growing up, I had a speech impediment. I was embarrassed to speak up in class or to ask my teachers for help, so my grades suffered. I lived in fear of what my classmates might do or say to me next on the playground.
My parents were extremely hardworking people, but they didn’t have a lot of money. They couldn’t afford to send me to a fancy private school or hire a specialist to help me improve my speech. All roads in my small town of Wrightsville, Georgia, seemed to indicate that I would struggle for the rest of my time in school.
Luckily for me, that was not the end of my story. I began sitting in front of the mirror every day and reciting difficult words again and again until I got them right. Eventually, I began to improve and gained the confidence to speak up in class. I also started working out and made both the track and football teams.
With the help of God, my parents, teachers and coaches, I went from having some of the worst grades to being one of Johnson County’s best students.
As a product of public education, I was able to achieve the American dream because of all the support I had. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many kids living in lower-income communities.
Despite pouring billions of dollars every year into public schools, America is ranked 27th in the world for education, with a child dropping out of public school every 60 seconds. Many kids are reading well below grade level, have poor writing and math skills, and are not finishing high school. Some amazing teachers in these communities feel discouraged and not supported as thousands of students are slipping through the cracks.
Sadly, the pandemic has only made these problems worse, particularly for lower-income families, by forcing millions of students to learn virtually, which has been shown to be much less effective and potentially damaging to the emotional and mental well-being of children. While many kids from wealthier zip codes were able to switch to private school or homeschool, most kids from lower-income families didn’t have those options and fell further behind.
As my friend Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., likes to say, “education is the great equalizer in this country.” We need to invest directly in students. This means giving them a choice in their education.
According to the American Federation for Children, 70% of families want to be able to send their child to a private, charter, virtual or homeschool, yet 82% of families are attending district-controlled schools and do not have a choice. In states where school choice is allowed, grades improve, dropout rates decrease, and students from all backgrounds are empowered to succeed.
If students are not performing well in a particular school, let’s provide them with an alternative. For me, public school worked just fine. For my son, he attended private school and ended up switching to a public school to take a particular class. For others, the best option might be homeschooling, charter schools, magnet schools or a different public school.
School choice is the civil rights issue of our day. More than 3.3 million students across America attend charter schools, and over half are black or Hispanic. In my home state of Georgia, we have scholarship programs that give kids from Bankhead to Buckhead access to a quality education. A few months ago, I visited a charter school in Dublin, Georgia, and saw students from different backgrounds thriving in the smaller classroom environment with specialized instruction.
If we recognize that every child is unique, we cannot continue the failed one-size-fits-all approach to education. Parents – not the government – know best how to address their kids’ educational needs. We should empower them to do it.
I realize that not every child is as lucky as I was to have parents and teachers who believed in me. My hope is that every child can reach their God-given potential by finding the right school for them, regardless of where they live.
Our education system should ensure that each and every child is able to achieve the American dream. N0 matter your zip code or the color of your skin, an excellent education is the birthright of every child born in America. We have an obligation to make good on that promise.