As legislatures across the country get set to resume their business, the issue of school choice, especially in Republican controlled bodies, continues to be a topic of interest. The “choice movement” in public education is not new, and many states have already adopted laws allowing parents more options to access private and charter schools, online learning and home schooling. Those who oppose school choice tend to place the focus on the negative impact on schools districts and the potential economic loss of resources. Detractors will also point out the continued segregation of schools both in terms of race and socioeconomic factors. For supporters of school choice, the argument is centered on students and parents; advocates will say that traditional public schools are failing many students and parents should be trusted to make the best educational decisions for their children.
The divisive political environment in our county has pushed the school choice issue back into a central debate. Accusations of public schools being too “woke” and the impacts of COVID have empowered many advocacy groups to ask for more educational options for parents. While many school board members and superintendents might initially want to oppose such movements completely, depending on the political factors in a given state, if the school choice movement is going to happen, here are suggestions for public school leaders:
- Advocate for a level playing field on selection of students: Too often, as states enact a proliferation of charter schools or some type of voucher system, they work to the disadvantage of traditional public schools. In some states, charter and private schools are allowed to select which students they will educate, denying others, and will often avoid children who have special needs, costing more to educate, or students who pose disciplinary challenges. Traditional public schools do not select their students, and should not want to as it is the responsibility and privilege of schools to educate all students. If public dollars are going to support these different options, choice schools should be required to accept any public school student wishing to attend; that would include private schools if they accept vouchers. Additionally, it is not an unreasonable expectation that these schools’ demographics should mirror the communities they are serving.
- Advocate for a level playing field on state requirements: In some states, educational choice advocates have been able to exempt choice schools from a number of state laws, regulations and policies. In some cases these exemptions are reasonable to allow the school to offer a differentiated program, like Montessori, for example. But, in many cases, they are exclusions from basic accountability requirements, and cumbersome state regulations in areas such as hiring, purchasing and public decision making. If such considerations are provided for these choice schools, district leaders should consider asking for similar options.
- Do Not Avoid Having A Role in Authorizing Choice Schools: Many districts, frustrated by the very notion of additional choice in public education, do not want to be part of the review and approval of such schools. In those cases, state departments of education create departments that may not have strong, robust and consistent authorization protocols, allowing for a proliferation of charter schools that vary greatly in quality and viability. These schools, opening, and often closing quickly, can play havoc on a district’s short and long range planning. Districts should, at the very least, ask for an impact study to share how a new choice school would create opportunities and potential challenges within a community. School systems might also consider asking that the authority to charter occur at the district level or that a district might also be able to authorize its own charter schools. Having some involvement may offset potential issues with new choice schools opening in or near the district.
While the prospect of a robust school choice agenda might be concerning to school district leaders, being proactive rather than reactive in helping determine how this legislation unfolds is critical. Merely advocating against any new options might leave district leaders outside of the conversation. Asking for thoughtful, logical parameters with educational choice may, in the long run, better serve the district. Finally, all educational providers, traditional public, charter, private and home school agencies should try to work together to best provide for the needs of children in a given community. While part of this choice movement is to spur competition, communication and collaboration among all schools will be in the ultimate best interests of all stakeholders.