Michael Ryan

Could school choice end poverty? This KC advocate wants a revolution in education

Equal opportunity for all is more than a mandate of law. It’s a matter of moral and principle. And it’s the foundation of the American dream.

Yet, equal opportunity has been more vigorously promoted in nearly every other aspect of life than the most important one: education. So many disadvantaged children are still hopelessly trapped in underperforming and failing schools.

Well, there’s a quiet revolution going on in education in Kansas City, and Lisa Watson wants to turn up the volume.

The African American entrepreneur and product of Sumner Academy magnet school wants to expand school choice in the region as a pathway to true equal opportunity in education. On Saturday, an open-to-the-public school choice symposium at the Reardon Center in Kansas City, Kansas — an event that is Watson’s own brainchild — will bring speakers and experts together from Kansas, Missouri and the nation to tout and train participants on matters of school choice and opportunity.

Her goal, indeed her burgeoning business plan, is to bring equal opportunity to everyone, particularly the minority community, by helping grow the movement nationwide starting with Kansas City and starting with Saturday’s event.

She knows of what she speaks. As a seventh-grade student with good grades, she experienced school choice with an official invitation to attend Sumner. What U.S. News and World Report this year called the No. 1 school in Kansas and 55th in the nation opened a world of possibilities for Watson.

Of course, she had to work for it, being required to take Latin and Shakespeare among other of the school’s lofty expectations. Since then, she’s graduated from UMKC and has seen the world — initially through two People To People scholarships.

She wants everyone — not just children of the well-to-do — to have the life-altering opportunities she experienced through the liberation of school choice.

I do, too — and so do growing numbers of parents, particularly in the African American community. Watson says African Americans are the fastest-growing segment of the homeschooling movement. Three black homeschooling mothers, in fact, are among the speakers Saturday.

“I believe that expanding educational opportunity is the opportunity that the American Dream guarantees,” says Watson, a self-described social justice advocate.

Watson is assiduous in not criticizing public education; Sumner is a public school, after all. But she argues that decisions about where to work, eat, shop or receive medical care aren’t determined by one’s ZIP code, and neither should one’s education be, at least arbitrarily.

She also understands why many in public education are opposed to school choice: Few legacy industries embrace disruption and innovation. “Do we expect Holiday Inn to come up with Airbnb? So, do we expect public schools to come up with the next innovation?

“That’s always going to be the case. The people who are in the current model are not going to embrace the new model.”

One relatively new model, such as at Faith Christian Academy in Kansas City, features a “collaborative” schedule in which students attend campus three days a week and are homeschooled two days — which assures deep parental involvement.

As for the assertion that choice hurts public schools, Watson argues it instead helps children, which is supposed to be the goal. Money should follow the student and the parents’ wishes, she says, adding that healthy competition actually makes you stronger, if you do it right.

It may be even better than that. Saturday’s symposium is provocatively called, “Can School Choice Defeat Poverty?” Watson is convinced it can, and could even attack entrenched generational poverty by lifting up new generations unencumbered by the old ways.

American public education, so revolutionary at its origin, can be celebrated and nurtured while also embracing innovation. Watson considers, as do I and many others, school choice to be the civil rights movement of the 21st century. Logic tells you the well-off already have it; I submit conscience should spur its spread to the less-well-off.

Precisely which future generation of children are we waiting for? It’s time to stop sticking our toes in, as Kansas has done with little-known tax credit vouchers. The deep end of the school choice pool opens Saturday in Kansas City, Kansas.

Come on in. The water’s fine.

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The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.