With a change in leadership at the U.S. Department of Education looming, the topic of school choice has quickly come to the forefront of conversations in education. Unfortunately, the definition of school choice varies depending on the source of the information.
How do you view school choice?
Proponents see school choice, as defined by EdChoice (formerly known as the Friedman Foundation), as a way to allow public education funds to follow students to whatever learning environment best fits their needs. Whether a parent chooses to enroll their child in a nearby parochial private school, the magnet high school across town, or homeschool in their very own residence, the allocation (or majority) of tax dollars designated to that student would go with the child rather than stay in the public school district designated to that student based on their primary residency.
Opponents of school choice view these efforts as a way to privatize education funding at a time many states are dealing with an education budget crisis. By diverting funds into private educational institutions, public schools may fall into a funding catastrophe that would affect the majority of at-risk, high-poverty households.
Regardless of the chosen viewpoint, school choice does exist in most states. While not always funded with public money, parents have the option of a variety of schooling models for their children. However, wading through the different philosophies and structures can be confusing. Just as parents should understand the different options, so should educators advocating for or against legislation surrounding the topic of school choice.
The National Charter School Resource Center simply defines charter schools as public schools operating under a contract between the school district and an authorizing agency.
The content of the contract varies by location, but allows a certain range of authority for the charter school that offers the ability for it to function differently from surrounding public schools in areas such as curriculum development, personnel requirements, and budget mandates.
Although some charter schools receive additional funding from outside sources, nearly all charters receive public dollars. As a result, federal laws must be followed, and tuition cannot be charged.
Charter schools can often offer benefits to students that aren’t permitted or feasible in public schools. Since many charters enroll on a lottery-based system, families that apply have a vested interest in the educational environment their child is entering.
- Charters can also designate school size, allowing for much smaller classroom populations. Class size is a major draw for families who become frustrated by increasing class sizes in public schools.
- With flexibility in curriculum, charter schools can specialize in key interest and technical areas in order to develop a more focused learning environment.
The research confirming or dismissing the effectiveness of charter schools is inconclusive. Issues involving transparency of performance data, relaxed teacher certification requirements, and unethical enrollment practices have cast a shadow on the charter school system. Public education advocates acknowledge many of the advantages that exist in charter schools, but many share the belief that if similar mandates were removed for all schools, comparable levels of success would be found everywhere.
As the demand for a greater focus on college and career readiness in schools increases, learning environments specializing in STEM areas, language immersion, or performing arts are becoming a bigger draw for families. These magnet schools, federally funded school programs that emphasize a particular theme in their curriculum, allow children to dig deeper into specific career fields within the public school system. Typically located in larger urban districts, these programs often attract a more diverse school population that increases the desegregation efforts in education.
Magnet schools usually enroll on an application/interview basis. As a result, many of the top students are pulled from their public school locations. In many instances, a very small percentage of students with special needs are accepted.
Although homeschooling is still in the minority, it is not a new phenomenon in America. Families have provided learning opportunities at home longer than educational institutions have been in existence. Aside from religious or values-based reasons for homeschooling, parents are moving toward this option as a way to sidestep many of the challenges that currently exist in public schools. Large class sizes, bullying, and disagreements regarding curriculum development all play a role in a family’s decision to homeschool.
More options and materials are available to parents, making homeschooling an easier process. Virtual-based schools, lesson planning software, and homeschooling networks offer greater structure and research-based curriculum options for families. Although these choices can help ensure stronger learning opportunities for homeschooled children, the end result is ultimately in the hands of the parents.
The Coalition for Responsible Home Education highlights the limited oversight of homeschooling in the majority of states.
- Thirty-nine states do not have a parent education requirement, meaning that a parent who never completed school is free to homeschool their children.
- Twenty-five states have no assessment requirement.
- Most states do not require any type of recordkeeping.
Homeschool advocates view the lack of requirements as a positive, keeping the government out of the education of their children. However, when a parent fails to properly homeschool their child, they often return back to the school environment woefully unprepared for the curriculum requirements mandated by the state.
Public and private schools
In the United States, over 50 million students enrolled in public schools during the fall of 2016. Typically, 10 percent of all eligible public school students enrolled in private schools. Opinions and concerns have developed over the years about the two best-known educational tracks.
A 2016 poll from Education Next and Gallup found that 55 percent of Americans give the schools in their community an “A” or “B” rating, a 12 percent improvement from a decade ago. However, only 25 percent give the same rating to American schools overall.
This disparity highlights the faith parents have in schools they are personally associated with as well as the lack of faith in the public school system as a whole. This discrepancy often leads to a comparison between the quality of a public school education versus a private school education as well as a parent’s right to school choice in regards to public funds.
Making a choice for all children
Educational philosopher John Dewey once wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” In politics, a surefire method of enacting an idea is to give it a catchy name. The phrase “school choice” is appealing to parents because they want the best educational opportunities for their children.
As educators, we should support any initiative that can lead to a better education for all children. Whether there is a desire to increase the use of charter schools, promote a standardized curriculum, or alter educational funding, any idea should begin with how it can benefit those children who have the least amount of resources at their disposal. By emphasizing support of an educational system that benefits those in the most need, we create a system which improves the entire country.
Dr. Jason Perez is the executive director of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness for the Oklahoma State Department of Education with 14 years of educational and administrative experience at the elementary level. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- Melissa Reitkopp, "Magnet Schools and Programs: What Parents Should Know"
- "Homeschooling Regulations by State," ProPublica
- "What is School Choice?," EdChoice
- "Homeschooling and Educational Neglect," Coalition for Responsible Home Education
- Anya Kamenetz, "Americans Like Their Schools Just Fine — But Not Yours," NPR