School Choice Gains Momentum in States
School choice is getting mighty popular among families, teachers, and legislators.
Twenty-nine governors officially recognized National School Choice Week (NSCW) in the last week of January, and state legislatures are brimming with voucher and charter school legislation.
For the first time, a teacher association endorsed the week, which brimmed with 3,600 grassroots events. So did an Olympic basketball athlete, CEOs of major companies, and the Jonas Brothers.
“After teaching in a traditional state school for many years, being able to have this opportunity to teach online made me realize that the typical approach we have for education does not fit all students, so to have that choice is essential,” said Amy Rosno, who has been an English teacher for 17 years, and has taught in a Wisconsin online school now for eight.
Educators nationwide also celebrated Digital Learning Day on February 6.
Support from Teachers
Rosno belongs to the Association of American Educators, the nation’s largest non-union teacher association. AAE’s members have diverse education backgrounds and largely support school choice. In an annual survey released in February, seven in ten AAE teachers said they support or tend to support Washington DC’s voucher program, Indiana’s tax deductions for private school expenses, and Arizona’s education savings accounts, a voucher-like program for special needs and low-income children.
"Once limited to rigid traditional school-terms and schedules, teachers are employed in traditional public schools, charters, private schools, religious schools, and online schools, just to name a few,” said AAE Executive Director Gary Beckner. “Educators will, in turn, have choices themselves when deciding when, where, and how to teach kids.”
Rosno said she and her students prize the flexibility online learning and teaching offer them: “Not having my day defined by a 45-minute time period, no bells ringing,” she characterized it. “Working with kids one-on-one and truly giving them the attention they need.”
While online learning is not a good fit for every child, Rosno said, it “really helps our students to succeed” when they have a particular need like her several students with severe medical challenges, another temporarily living in Guam, or students with learning difficulties who can concentrate on a computer but not surrounded by classmates.
Lawmakers Get Moving
Legislators in dozens of states have introduced legislation to give more people like Rosno and her students a flurry of education options. New or expansions to voucher programs are currently alive in big states like Texas, Alaska, Montana, and Pennsylvania, and littler states like: Tennessee, Arkansas, South Carolina, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Nevada. It’s not just red states, as lawmakers in Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, and New Jersey are also debating voucher proposals.
Most of these states are also considering legislation that would introduce or expand charter and online schools. Others focusing on these options include Hawaii, Mississippi, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Nebraska.
That’s about half the country’s states considering new school choice laws.
A New World for Parents
As legislators move towards giving families and teachers more education options, parents are learning to navigate the diversifying school system. The first months of a new year are open season for voucher and public school choice enrollment in Milwaukee and most other locales, said Jodi Goldberg, director of local engagement for GreatSchools Milwaukee. GreatSchools is a nonprofit that offers an online guide to U.S. schools and free K-12 admission counseling in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and Washington DC.
“In January, our phones start ringing off the hook,” she said.
Billboards for different schools go up all over Milwaukee, and parents start checking out schools online and in open houses. In Milwaukee, GreatSchools personally coaches 5,000 parents each year and sends city schools info to another 12,000.
“If you live in a city like Milwaukee where all the socioeconomic indicators are against you, you want those choices because the school next to you may not be educating everyone, or you may have a child that needs some sort of special program,” Goldberg said.
Choice Fosters Diversity
Most parents prioritize a school’s academic performance and one or two other qualities that matter a lot to them, such as proximity to home, sports, arts and music programming, afterschool care, and so forth, she said.
In school choice towns, she said, parents’ different priorities spark greater diversity among schools and freedom to specialize, which better meets each family’s needs. A mother she knows has nine children, many of them adopted and with special needs. The family’s children attend several different schools, each a better fit for different children.
“It’s a gift to have this many choices. Those parents wouldn’t trade it,” Goldberg said. “And when you go to other places they’re like, ‘Boy, I wish we had that here.’ If you’re happy, you don’t need school choice. It’s the disenfranchised parents for whom this is so crucial.”
While public schools sometimes complain about losing students to other programs families prefer, if families could start in the right spot for them when their child entered kindergarten or first grade, it would reduce the school mobility that increases political tensions and damages kids’ education, she said.
“School choice is not the end result,” Goldberg said. “It’s a better educated citizenry that’s going to take care of me in my old age. The end result is well-educated children.”
“Teacher Voices: 2013 AAE Membership Survey,” February 2012: http://www.aaeteachers.org/images/em/2013febnews.pdf.
Image by www.audio-luci-store-it.