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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Choice & Charters Opinion

Families May Like Their School But Want More Options. That’s Where Course Choice Comes In

By Rick Hess — April 18, 2022 3 min read
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The debate over school choice has long featured strident rhetoric about union lackeys and privatizers. But now, after millions of students spent a year or more in off-and-on home schooling and makeshift arrangements like learning pods and virtual camps, many once-stark distinctions have blurred. Yet, that has helped make other things clear. For one, it’s illustrated how the familiar school choice debate can miss much of what’s important to families.

While there are plenty of families who want to move to a different school, for a variety of reasons, polling also consistently shows that over 70 percent of parents are satisfied with their child’s school. Of course, this doesn’t mean they like everything about their school. They may want choices that amount to something less than moving from school A to school B.

Even pre-pandemic, parents who liked their school might have still grumbled about its reading program, math classes, or lack of Advanced Placement options. Now, with so many students forcibly acclimated to remote learning—which frequently involved a mélange of academic options, providers, and supports—many parents have asked: Why can’t a student choose to take advantage of such opportunities without changing schools?

Well, they should be able to and they increasingly can. One tool for extending such incremental choice is “course choice,” state-level legislation that allows families to choose to stay put—while also tapping into instructional options that aren’t available at a student’s school.

Course choice (also sometimes termed “course access”) permits students to take courses in addition to those offered by their local school district. These courses can be offered by neighboring districts, state higher education institutions, through virtual learning platforms, or specialized tutoring services. In most cases, a portion of the per-pupil outlay is used to pay for requisite transportation, materials, or online enrollment.

Course choice can make it possible to meet the needs of more students while reducing the pressure on educators to meet every one of these demands inside the building or with their existing staff. This is especially pressing in those cases where it’s hard to find a skilled instructor or where only a handful of students seek a particular offering. Indeed, my colleague Michael Brickman recently penned a report arguing that course choice should appeal to public educators as much as to families.

While course choice made great strides a decade ago, with 10 states adopting such policies by 2014, things have slowed mightily since then amid our hardening partisan divides. Yet, as Brickman points out, there appears to be resurgent interest in this kind of choice in the aftermath of COVID-19, especially as school leaders cope with staffing shortages, recognize the new comfort of high-quality remote instruction, and see the need to provide extra opportunities and supports to learners upended by two years of disruption.

In particular, observes Brickman, post-pandemic classrooms are likely to feature “an even greater distribution of students’ ability levels in each classroom”—posing heightened challenges to teachers and schools seeking to meet each student’s learning needs. Course choice can be one tool for addressing the challenge.

For those seeking detail on how all this can work, it’s worth checking out Brickman’s report, which offers sensible guidelines on specific program elements like rules for adding “outside” courses, when and how to notify parents of course options, how to handle student applications, funding mechanisms, and how to ensure courses are consistent with state graduation requirements.

But I think the larger point is that, especially post-pandemic, the world of educational choice is much bigger, richer, and more interesting than just whether families should have the right to move from this school to that school. In fact, even as we debate things like opportunity scholarships and education savings accounts, we may be able to find copious common ground on more incremental ways to expand options and promote educational choice.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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