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  • There's no substitute for a stable, happy family—but a good school can do a great deal to support kids without one. Tweet This
  • School choice programs empower disadvantaged parents and boost their kids' achievement. Tweet This

The statistics for children growing up in poverty and without fathers are bleak. We absolutely need to find ways to curb poverty and strengthen families, but what can we do for children already growing up in difficult circumstances? Should we just plan on their failure, and hope for better luck with the next generation?

Unfortunately, I’ve come across that attitude more than I would like during the past year or so I’ve spent as a reporter covering the education reform movement across the country. Over and over again, I’ve heard variations on the theme “poor kids can’t learn.” And if a student regularly goes home to physical abuse, a surprise eviction, or a single mother who dropped out of high school and isn’t equipped to help with homework, it’s perfectly understandable if the student isn’t excelling in school.

But I’ve also heard, over and over again, “Yes, they can learn. Let them come to our school.” I didn’t believe it until I visited one of these schools in Milwaukee.

The city has many of the same struggles one finds in the rust belt: its inner city is home high rates of poverty, crime, and single parenting, as well as schools with low rates of graduation. About 60 percent of high school students in the school district earn a diploma. Deliberately located in high-poverty areas of town are HOPE Christian schools, a network of elementary, middle, and high schools that welcome students who have all kinds of disadvantages at home.

At HOPE, students pay tuition with a public scholarship, and the school is structured atraditionally. Character-building is woven into the curriculum, and students who don’t complete their work for the day are required to stay after and work individually with teachers. For the past three years, all of the network’s high school seniors have been accepted to college.

Over the course of my reporting, I discovered there were similar schools all over the country. An administrator at a charter school in Washington, D.C. told me there was no secret to educating children who come from poverty and broken families. Her school, and many others, require students to wear uniforms, have longer school days, and hire teachers who refuse to give up on the kids. The first charter school to open in Washington state is affiliated with a nonprofit providing wrap-around services for homeless families, with a focus on helping parents get on their feet and keeping the family together. A Catholic school in Cincinnati takes poor students on a private scholarship, and when public scholarships became available, they were able to accept more students. Graduating high school and attending college enable kids to escape poverty.

Patrick Wolf, professor and chair in school choice at the Department of Education Reform  at the University of Arkansas, has spent years studying the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., which allow certain parents to receive a publicly funded scholarship for their child’s tuition at a private school, chosen by the parent. His Washington study showed significant improvements in high school graduation rates for students offered scholarships; in addition, those students’ parents thought their schools were safer.

Other studies have shown similar results. Greg Forster, senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, looked at a dozen studies of school choice programs and found “the empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayers money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.”

Wolf said it’s difficult to study how school choice programs like these help parents—does more parental involvement mean parents are welcomed or that parents don’t trust the school with their children?—but he said private schools tend to welcome parent involvement in schools, more so than public schools.

And this may be exactly what poor parents are looking for. In their book The School Choice Journey, Wolf and coauthor Thomas Stewart quote one parent who learned English in order to keep up with the school’s expectations for parental involvement. In Promises I Can Keep, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas describe the situation many poor mothers find themselves in in Philadelphia, home to some of the worst schools in the country:

School removes children from the close parental supervision of their early years and exposes them to a peer environment mothers almost uniformly believe is negative. Thus beginning school represents the onset of a thirteen-year battle that mothers wage with these peers for the minds and hearts of their children.

Give those parents a choice—their traditional district schools, a local charter school, or scholarship money for a nearby private school—and many parents will jump at the chance to have more control over their kids’ education. (That may be why more than a million students are on charter school waiting lists and scholarship programs like Florida’s are bursting at the seams.) No school can fully replace what a child has lost when his family is not intact and stable. But in addition to empowering parents, schools can fill in for some of what was lost. They can give students love, confidence, and tangible hope for their future.