This is National School Choice Week and there are many reasons to celebrate this modest but important idea.
School choice is based on a simple truth: Parents know their children better than anyone else. As such, parents – not the government – should control their children’s education and where they attend school.
That all children are different, that they have different talents and needs, that they come from different backgrounds – these are facts that argue for school choice and against the standardized “one size fits all” model of public education.
Despite these realities, few North Carolinians have the right to freely choose where their child will attend school. And when that right is exercised, regrettably it’s often dependent on age and family income. If you’re the parent of a pre-school student, you can use a state voucher to attend pre-school at a state or private institution. If you’re the parent of a college student, your son or daughter can receive financial aid and attend any public or private institution.
But if you’re the parent of a K-12 student in North Carolina, your options are limited. If your family has the financial resources, your child can attend a private school. If one parent is at home, you may consider home school. If you are near a charter school, that may be an option … if there is available space and your number is selected during the lottery held to determine which new students are allowed to fill the limited number of places.
For the overwhelming number of families, school choice is only a dream. They attend school based on where they live. The school makes the decision, not the parent. If you’re lucky to live in a good neighborhood, you’ll probably have a good school. If not, well, good luck.
Is this any way to educate our children?
School choice seeks to redress the current wrongs by funneling education resources to the child and not through the government school. In so doing, school choice empowers parents to take control over their child’s education.
Charter schools, tax credit scholarships, vouchers – and more recently education savings accounts — are some of the more popular tools by which parents have exercised school choice. These tools have also helped to fuel an educational revolution in North Carolina and nationally.
The Friedman Foundation reports there are 51 different types of school choice programs in 25 states and the District of Columbia. It’s a movement that has been steadily growing.
In 2014 the North Carolina General Assembly approved the Opportunity Scholarship program. Low-income students are eligible for up to $4,200 to attend the school of their choice. More than 5,500 students applied for the program.
In 2004, North Carolina had 93 charter schools and 21,578 students. There are now 127 charter schools with 53,655 students. The percentage of students who attend charter, private or home schools as a percentage of all students increased by 34 percent over the last decade. How big has school choice become? If you gathered all the students attending charter, private and home schools in North Carolina – approximately 248,000 — the population would equal the combined student populations of Wake County Public Schools and the Guilford County Public Schools (the largest and third-largest school districts in North Carolina) plus the student population of the Alamance-Burlington County Schools.
School choice is growing because school choice works.
Strong empirical evidence consistently shows school choice improves parental satisfaction, boosts academic outcomes, strengthens shared civic values and saves taxpayers money. Furthermore, new studies suggest that students who had access to school choice options over time had higher graduation rates from high school and were more likely to enroll in college.
We are not ignorant of the vocal body of critics claiming school choice does not benefit participants and hurts the public schools. But the research, the waiting lists for many school choice programs, and the changes many public schools have made to compete with school choice programs say otherwise.
School choice offers a real solution to the thousands of families looking for better educational opportunities for their children. It also poses a real threat to educational systems that must be reminded they were created to educate children – not to be an employment agency.
School choice also offers the right solution for disadvantaged students trapped in a system that can only offer inferior educational opportunities.
It’s an effective remedy for an educational system that balkanizes children by race and family wealth. As UC Berkeley law professor John Koons has said, school choice is “simple justice.”
For all those reasons, let’s celebrate school choice and work to expand educational opportunity for all. It’s a task that cannot wait.