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ZIP Codes Didn’t Imprison Democrats’ Newest Socialist Candidate, Her Ideas Do

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

By now you’ve probably seen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign video, in which the 28-year-old socialist and Democratic congressional candidate claims that she was a victim of her ZIP code.

“I was born in a place where your ZIP code determines your destiny,” she says, in reference to the Bronx, where she was born and lived until she was five years old.

As she explained to The Daily Mail in a statement published on Sunday, her family pitched in to buy a house 40-minutes outside of the Bronx, in Yorktown, so she could attend a better public school. In Yorktown, her mother worked as a housekeeper, while her father stayed in the Bronx and managed the family business, Kirschenbaum and Ocasio-Roman Architects, until he died of lung cancer in 2008.

“She ended up attending public school 40 minutes north in Yorktown, and much of her life was defined by the 40 minute commute between school and her family in the Bronx,” her campaign website says of the move.

Her campaign website did not explain that she was able to go to a better public school because she lived in a neighborhood where the median household income was more than double the national average.

In 1990, the median household income in the United States was $30,468. In Yorktown Heights, the median household income was $62,651, according to Census data. In 1999, the median household income in the United States was $41,994. In Yorktown Heights, the median household income that same year was $88,648. 

Yorktown High School, where she attended, is ranked as one of the best schools in the state, according to U.S. News and World Report. Boston University, where she studied economics and international relations, was ranked the 38th most expensive school in the nation, with tuition set at $50,241 per year, according to data from College Board.

John Cardillo of NewsmaxTV pointed this out and incorrectly asserted that Ocasio-Cortez attended Brown University, which prompted this response from the democratic socialist.

Ocasio-Cortez is right — Census data doesn’t tell the whole story. Growing up in a place where the median household income is above the national average doesn’t negate the fact that her family struggled at various points in her life to get by and that she suffered a great loss with her father’s death.

Ocasio-Cortez is also right about the dismal state of public education in the Bronx, which has New York City’s highest high school dropout rate (11.7 percent) and nine of the city’s 13 most dangerous schools. Last year, an 18-year-old boy stabbed two of his classmates, killing one of them, after he says he was bullied at Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx.

A new report from the Fordham Institute reveals that students enrolled in Catholic schools are less likely to act out than their peers at public or other private schools, but for many low-income families, shelling out money for private schools is not an option. Currently, New York has no private school choice program, which means that parents living in the Bronx who don’t want to send their child to a dangerous or academically troubled school cannot enroll them at a private school instead without paying the tuition themselves. In other words, they are indeed “prisoners,” not of their ZIP codes, but of their school district boundaries.

The city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, has waged a slow-burning war against one of the city’s highest-performing charter schools, Success Academy. He ran a campaign on squeezing out the charter school network and has repeatedly denied the expanding network of schools space to accommodate a growing number of students, The New York Times reports. In other words, instead of allowing for good schools to grow so that a ZIP code is not destiny, Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic colleague, who also speaks favorably of socialism, is making sure it remains that way.

But Ocasio-Cortez is wrong about her ZIP code determining her destiny. Clearly she was able to rise above her Bronx roots and attend one of the best public high schools in the state and one of the most expensive colleges in the country. Ocasio-Cortez was lucky. She had a family who were willing to sacrifice to give her a better future.  Their private action enabled her to rise above her circumstances despite government-erected barriers in her way.

School choice advocates have long pointed out that property tax-reliant public school funding creates a system of inequality. Rich neighborhoods can provide their public schools with better resources, even when states redistribute a large amount of their wealth to poorer districts, but funding doesn’t tell the whole story. Many cities that spend more than the national average per pupil often fail to properly educate their students.

Washington D.C. spends about $27,000 per pupil per year — more than twice the national average —  yet the school system is an abysmal failure. From the Heritage Foundation:

Proficiency levels in reading and math also leave much to be desired. Among fourth-graders, 32 percent scored proficient or better in math, and 29 percent scored proficient in reading. Just 20 percent of eighth-graders tested proficient or better in reading, and just 21 percent in math.

That’s right: Just two out of 10 eighth-graders in D.C. public schools can read or do math proficiently.

The problem is that education is too far socialized, something Ocasio-Cortez’s ideology would increase. Allowing parents to decide where they want to send their children is key to ending the inequalities in our educational system.

Ocasio-Cortez notices there’s something  wrong, but she doesn’t understand that private solutions are what enabled her to rise above government problems, and what research has conclusively shown is more effective for everyone. Instead, her ideas would double down on the same impediments to her success that are harming millions more kids like her who simply aren’t as lucky. They should have more than luck. They should have freedom to choose.