Free to Choose

Published September 1, 2004

Like every other parent, Marie Sanchez wants the best for her children. What makes her unusual is being a public school teacher and an unabashed advocate of parental choice.

On an almost daily basis, students and teachers in her local public schools in the Edgewood School District in San Antonio, Texas must confront the distinct possibility that they will be caught in a fight. Just trying to break up fights during her years in the district, Marie has been hit in the stomach, punched in the jaw, and kicked in the shins. For the past seven years, two armed policemen have patrolled each high school in the district. The state even funds classes where she and other teachers learn how to extricate themselves from a hair pull or a bite.

Unwilling to let her three children–Robert, Rebecca, and Stephen–grow up with those kinds of distractions and dangers, Marie sent them to private school.

For years she paid tuition for her children’s education as well as taxes for the public schools they did not attend. Then, in 1998, Dr. James Leininger and the Children First America Foundation created the CEO Horizon Scholarship Program.

That program allowed virtually every student in the Edgewood district to receive a privately funded school voucher. Recognizing an opportunity to get an even better education for her children, Marie applied for and received vouchers for Robert and Rebecca. Stephen, by this time, was already in college.

Also recognizing the opportunity the scholarships offered to all children, Marie became a dynamo of activism for the Horizon Program, promoting it to parents, legislators, and her fellow teachers. About 10 Edgewood teachers have followed her lead and applied for a Horizon scholarship for their children.

Marie’s enthusiasm doesn’t make her foolhardy or a glutton for punishment. “I watch where I step,” she says. Even after 31 years in the district, and with one foot out the door towards retirement, she worries her children might still face a whisper campaign, saying, “Your mom lives off the public schools, but she doesn’t support them.”

Despite such worries, Marie has pushed forward, talking both as a mother who cares about children and a teacher who knows the reality of Edgewood schools.

She sees nothing inherently wrong with the Edgewood schools and attributes most of the district’s problems to the violence that plagues the area generally. With absentee parents, children too often are left to raise themselves, resulting in a prevailing jungle mentality that spills over onto the playground and into the classroom. Although she soldiers on as a teacher in the trying district, she doesn’t believe anyone should have to subject their children to those conditions.

She hasn’t pitched the program to the teacher union’s building representative or to her principal. They and a few other colleagues say the Horizon program is taking money from the district. While Marie understands the connection between attendance and dollars for the district, that concern is secondary. Her first question is: “Where will the child do better?” If it’s in an Edgewood school, send the child there. If it’s in a private school, send the child there.

When fellow public school teachers do confront her, her reply is both simple and compelling.

“I’m free to choose,” she says, “and so are you.”

M. Royce Van Tassell ([email protected]) is executive director of Education Excellence Utah.