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School choice: It’s personal

School choice -- long an issue of hot debate among education entities and policy wonks, with loyalties frequently divided along party lines.

But public support for it may be growing, according to a report from the Manhattan Institute. The organization commissioned a survey last fall of 5,000 voters from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina that included questions about school choice and charter schools. The survey found that 66-70% of respondents support publicly funded K–12 school choice. It also shows that between 51% and 62% of respondents support state funding of charter schools as an alternative to traditional district-managed public schools.

Today kicks off National School Choice Week. I spoke with Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week and author of The School Choice Roadmap to get his take on the issue and hear about the benefits he has seen with students, families and schools. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

How can school choice help improve students' physical and emotional wellbeing? 

The biggest misconception about school choice is that it is simply a set of sterile policy prescriptions. It’s so much more than that. It’s personal. It’s about basic humanity and respecting the importance of a child’s need to learn with dignity while pursuing his or her own happiness. I have met so many families who have been more than satisfied with the academics at their children’s schools, but who have also seen their kids struggle nonetheless because they just didn’t “fit in” at school, were mercilessly bullied, or were unhappy. This isn’t the fault of schools. It isn’t the fault of kids. It isn’t the fault of families. It’s just reality: one size doesn’t fit all, and that’s okay. But we can’t pretend that just because a school works well for most kids, the kids who are left behind don’t deserve opportunities to succeed and be happy. They do, and school choice facilitates that. I have met students who went from nearly dropping out and considering suicide at one school, to making the honor roll the next year at a different school. To say school choice can be life-changing is an understatement.

What about public school teachers? What’s the impact for them?

Every educator knows that every child is unique, and that all children learn in different ways. Some of the biggest proponents of school choice I know are public school teachers. They support school choice not only because they have pride in the schools where they work, but also because they realize that even in a well-regarded public school, there will always be students who will be better served in different environments -- and they want those kids to succeed, too.

By expanding the variety of schools in a community, teachers also see more employment options. They have better opportunities to find workplaces that best meet their needs, professional interests and talents.

And finally, school choice leads to stronger parent involvement in education. When parents actively choose their children’s schools, they are more likely to remain engaged. This helps facilitate strong partnerships between parents and teachers, for the benefit of individual students and schools as a whole.

What family wins have you seen in school choice? What states are doing it well?

I have met countless students who have shared with me how having school choice options changed the trajectory of their lives. I remember a grandmother of an elementary school student in Louisiana, who cried as she told me that her granddaughter never learned to read at her school. But when her granddaughter switched schools, she learned to love books. I met a young man in Missouri who told me that he just didn’t “fit in” at his assigned school, and his grades were struggling. He switched schools, his grades improved, and he found “a new home” in that school. These stories are everywhere, and they are what motivate me in my work.

The states that succeed with school choice are states that offer the broadest variety of publicly-funded, public sector choices -- including open enrollment for traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, online public schools -- along with programs that help make private school affordable for families, and empower families to pursue homeschooling without excessive red tape. Florida and Arizona top my list of states that offer an incredible variety of options, from public to private. They not only have effective policies, but families are availing themselves of school choice options in record numbers. 

Teacher unions have pushed back hard on school choice, saying it hurts public school funding and that it exacerbates the divide between affluent and low-income students. Can you speak to these claims?

Too often, I think we debate school choice and education funding as if they are opposing sides of a single issue. I view things quite differently. To me, we need to ensure that every family has a variety of options for their children’s education. This starts with expanding access to traditional public schools with open enrollment programs, authorizing high quality public charter schools and online schools, creating public magnet schools, and providing financial aid for families to better afford private schools, and facilitate homeschooling. Then, we need to ensure that all of our schools are fully funded and receive the resources they need to serve students effectively. We can do this. It’s not impossible. And indeed, we must do it. So, I disagree with some school choice supporters who use choice as a way to criticize traditional public schools; I think that approach is unproductive, and it ignores the reality that there are many, many effective public schools all across the country. Similarly, I disagree with some education organizations that criticize school choice because they fear funding issues; to them, I encourage them to find a way to expand funding where it’s needed while providing options to families who need and deserve them. As for the learning divide between lower-income and affluent families, one of the best ways to level the playing field is to expand school choice, allow students of all backgrounds to work and learn together, eliminate the shameful vestiges of redlining, and stop pretending that assigning students to schools based on their residential ZIP codes is well-designed public policy.

Talk about School Choice Week. What's the history and purpose of this event? What do you have planned for schools?

National School Choice Week started in 2011 to raise awareness of effective education options for children. Our goal was, and is, to inform parents about the options they have for their children’s education. Year-round, our team works to develop comprehensive, detailed, and practical resources for parents to help them navigate their school choice options and find learning environments that meet their children’s needs. Meanwhile, we partner with 25,000 schools and tens of thousands of community organizations to shine a spotlight on the benefits of opportunity in K-12 education during one big, celebratory week in late January. During normal times, this week includes big school fairs and parent information sessions, student talent showcases, and other types of independent events at schools across the country. This year, these activities will be held virtually; the activities will include video contests, virtual school fairs, car parades, drive-in movie screenings, and much, much more!

Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Workforce. Contact her at kanoe.namahoe@futurenet.com.

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