Just weeks ago, families across the city sent their kids off to begin the 2023–2024 school year. Following an annual tradition in Philadelphia, government officials and community leaders lined up in a ceremonial fashion at school doors and welcomed students back with thunderous applause, high-fives, and cheers.

As I participated in this tradition this year, I reflected on the real challenges we face in public education, the parents who are actively trying to get their kids out of certain low-performing schools, and how casually the system has been ushering students into failing schools for years.

Here’s the data. Class is now in session.

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Every district-managed school in the 3rd Council District is considered “low achieving” by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania except for two (the Penn Alexander School, which receives investment and support from the University of Pennsylvania, and the Powell School, which is a university-assisted school with Drexel University). Based on 2021–2022 school district data, over 80 percent of public-school students in the 3rd District are below proficient in math, and only 22 percent are proficient in reading. Nearly one in five students are reading below grade level. With statistics like these, it’s no surprise that 63 percent of students who live in this district are opting out of their district-assigned school to go somewhere else.

Before running for office, I ran business districts across West and Southwest Philadelphia. I am by no means an expert on public education, but you don’t need a Ph.D. in higher education to figure out that it’s the kids who are paying the price.

While politicians in Harrisburg and Philadelphia argue over who’s to blame for failing schools, generations of students fail every year. Students are graduating unable to read, with limited critical thinking skills, and incapable of doing basic math. From the jump, our schools are crippling kids, narrowing their potential, and dimming their futures. It must stop!

A 2022 poll from A Greater Philadelphia showed that 74 percent of Democratic voters support Education Savings Accounts that can be used to help children attend private schools. City-wide across Philadelphia in February 2023, there were 18,000 students on waitlists to get into charter schools. Forty-seven percent of public school spots in West and Southwest Philadelphia are vacant because of the students who are already going elsewhere.

It’s time to give West Philadelphia families a choice.

If parents are making it clear that they want to send their kids to another school, why isn’t the government making it easier to do so?

The answer is because, for too long, we’ve had a government that doesn’t ask you what you need but instead tells you what you’re going to get.

I firmly believe that no politician, interest group, or activist should be able to tell a parent where they can send their children. Eighteen thousand parents want to move their kids to another school, but the government is blocking them from doing so.

I want to be clear that I’m not against public schools, nor am I saying that the public schools that are currently failing can’t be remediated. I think they can, and they should. If a parent wants to send their child to a public school, they should have the right to do so. The city also should work to hold all schools — public and private — accountable for the quality of their education. No school should have over half their students graduating below grade level in reading or math, year after year, without question.

We need to have tough conversations on restoring accountability and what remediation looks like. While we do that, however, we shouldn’t fail additional generations of students while we look for solutions.

We should embrace opportunities to reorganize public funding like the recent state budget compromise that would’ve sent millions of dollars into the public school system while also creating a scholarship for those that choose private schools in the worst school districts (that 15,000 3rd District students would’ve been eligible for).

It’s time to give West Philadelphia families a choice.

Jabari K. Jones is an independent candidate running for the 3rd Council District in Philadelphia. Prior to running, he served as president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative. Learn more at jabariforcouncil.com

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