Detroit’s Education Quandry

t's a tale as old as time. When it comes to public education, White is not only right-it's often well funded, community supported and academically solid. But not so much when a school system is chock-full of children of color. Funds dry up, the neediest kids get the fewest resources and the special stress that poverty places upon learning environments is never adequately addressed. Case in point: The Nation's Report Card recently rated Detroit Public Schools the nation's worst urban district in reading and math.

So, if you moved into Detroit to take part in its renaissance, do you have an obligation to send your children to a local, poorly performing public school to do your part to change the system?

This was the topic of a column called "The Ethicist" in The New York Times in January. The question that sparked this column came from a well-educated interracial couple in Oakland, California. They were struggling with whether to send their son to their neighborhood public school (where they were volunteers), despite the fact that it was one of the state’s poorest performing schools.

"This raises a serious ethical quandary for us," the father wrote. "Do we let our neighborhood kids and our own values down by fleeing to a higher-testing public school in a richer part of the city? Or do we let our son down by sending him to the neighborhood school, which we fear will not put him on solid educational footing?"

When I first read the column, it came as cold comfort to me that Detroit isn't the only urban area dealing with failing public education. Second, I noted with interest that the father identified himself as part of a well-educated interracial couple, revealing implicit racism and classism. Does his son deserve better because he has educated parents of different races?


But I want to take this conversation past the obvious "isms." It's not just mostly White urban gentrifiers who are facing this dilemma. I was asking myself the same question when I was raising my children in Detroit through the 1980s and '90s-and so were my African-American friends. The fact is that all Detroit parents are asking the same question, no matter their race or whether they have the means to do anything about it.

As a Detroit parent, do you have an obligation to support a failing school system by sending your kid there? The answer is "no." No one owes this city more than they owe their own kids. I think that the DPS teachers said it best during their January walkout when they held signs that said, "35 is the speed limit, not a class size."

But you have to pay a high price to do the best you can do for your own child in the city. For more than 20 years, as I raised my kids, the issue of education was my obsession. I couldn’t meet anyone new, leave a business meeting or attend a worship service in Detroit without asking people where they lived and where their kids went to school. In my affluent west-side neighborhood, it was hard to find two children who attended the same school. In fact, many siblings didn’t. Parents often shopped by grade level, moving children around to charter, magnet, private and parochial schools to find the best fit.

The stress was staggering. We spent an overwhelming amount of energy arranging transportation, creating networks and paying taxes for schools we’d never use while paying tuition for schools we could.

And we were the lucky ones. Every time we made a new choice for our own children, we were painfully aware that we were leaving many other Detroit children behind. Most Detroit families did not have cars, or flexible work hours, or money for private schools, or a network to support the quest for a good education. Our choice was hard, but at least we had one.

In the end, The Ethicist offered this advice to the letter writer who lives in Oakland: "Your special obligations are to your own child. There’s no recognizably human world where parents treat their own children the same as everyone else's."

Well, dear Ethicist, that's where we part company. In Detroit, we must create a new world where all kids are treated like something special-ours.

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