There are a lot more options for receiving K-12 education today than when I was growing up. Long gone are the days when parents had to pick between the public school in their district or paying pricey private school tuition out of pocket. The rise of public charter and magnet schools, state-led voucher programs, online learning, and homeschooling options has meant that parents now have no reason to settle on the closest school or pay a premium to avoid it.
Do so many options undermine the purpose of public schools though? Should all of the energy that is going into building, naming and analyzing these other schools really be channeled into strengthening the basic schools that the government gave us?
In theory, I suppose there is an argument for refocus of educational pursuits where schools already exist, instead of creating new versions. But that theory hinges on the false assumption that given the chance, public schools would find the motivation, both within and outside school walls, to improve. Since the 1918 decree that all American children must attend at least elementary school, public schools have been considered a basic right. That widespread access certainly led to a better educated public but in the process the privilege of learning has been lost.
That said, I am in favor of school choice because:
1. We are lagging too far behind on a global scale to reject this option.
Despite spending more on public education than France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Japan, Brazil AND the U.K. combined, the U.S. lags behind these nations in math and science. Only 25 percent of high school graduates have the literacy skills they need to get a job. What’s more, every 26 seconds a U.S. student drops out of high school. In the democratization of education process, indifference to learning has risen and the standards at public schools have dropped.
Giving parents the freedom to choose their child’s school is a movement that strives to improve education at ALL schools through the old-fashioned business concept of competition. Public charter and magnet schools are tuition free, just like public schools, but must make some promises in their contracts in order to stay open. If these schools of choice habitually do not reach their goals, they close. Can the same be said of public schools? The accountability level that these young additions to the public school arena bring ensures that students achieve more - and if they don’t, those schools do not stick around long.
2. Parents are empowered to improve the quality of their children’s education.
School choice is not simply about non-traditional public schools though. The movement goes much deeper than that and empowers parents to take the reins of their children’s learning paths. Since 2007, the number of K-12 students enrolled in online public schools has risen an astonishing 450 percent. Home schooling is also on the rise as 1.77 million K-12 students are homeschooled - a number that has more than doubled since 1999. Parents are pushing back against simple acceptance of educational opportunities based on geography; they are still choosing traditional public and private schools but only after educating themselves.
3. School choice helps students in low-performing states.
Mississippi, which ranks last in student achievement in the nation, does not have charter school options just yet. It seems to me that any attempt to offer solutions to this cycle of student non-achievement would be welcomed, especially since public charter and magnet schools have shown some success in other low-performing states.
Public schools can still thrive in a school choice environment. Options like charter, magnet, private, online and homeschool curricula are not meant to undermine the nation’s public schools but to build them up through shared quality standards. There is room for all choices in K-12 schools and students benefit from the options.
The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.