School Choice: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How it Helps Your Child
You may have heard about school choice, particularly as it pertains to cyber charter schools. But what exactly is it, and how does it impact your family? In this blog, we explore school choice's role in education, why it's important, and how it benefits your child!
January in Pennsylvania is known for two things: cold weather and celebrating National School Choice Week!
Each year, schools from across the country join together during the last full week in January to celebrate every parent’s right to choose the most effective school for their children.
Regrettably, school choice is not a right shared by every parent in every state. Some states do not allow parents to choose the best school option for their children. That’s why, in Pennsylvania, we not only celebrate National School Choice Week, but also advocate on behalf of all parents throughout our commonwealth and our nation to ensure all students can access the best educational opportunities.
How School Choice Began
The roots of the school choice movement are checkered at best. Both those in favor of school choice as well as those opposed can rightfully argue that there were colorful characters on both sides. As with all political movements, much of the debate hones in on a few select individuals whose pursuit of power and influence may have superseded their original goals.
That said, most parents will agree that the historical narrative surrounding school choice is irrelevant in comparison to their child’s actual experience today. As the current COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, parents are seeking new school options that align with both their values and with the future opportunities made available to their children.
A Search for Other Options
In a recent student conducted by National School Choice Week, “half of U.S. parents (52 percent) considered finding a new or different school for at least one of their children within the past year or are currently considering finding a new or different school for at least one of their children.”
(Resource courtesy of School Choice Week.)
While the current pandemic may have exacerbated the extent by which parents are seeking new school options, it by no means explains the entire choice movement. In Pennsylvania, the growth in charter school enrollment has become increasingly evident over the past 10 years. Today, more than 163,500 students are enrolled in one of Pennsylvania’s 179 public charter or public cyber charter schools.
But the school choice movement is about more than just choosing charter schools. In Pennsylvania and across the nation, school choice is the movement that encourages every family to discover the best educational environment for their child. That includes charter schools, cyber charter schools, private schools, parochial schools, home-based learning options, and even traditional public brick-and-mortar schools. What the school choice movement has gotten so right is that every child is unique. That’s why it is important that all educational entities partner together to ensure that every student in Pennsylvania is provided with the supports and structure necessary to build a strong future.
In the same study by National School Choice Week, they found that “Parents want schools that prepare students for real-world success and focus on quality academics.” Data from the survey shows:
- 24 percent of parents indicated they prioritize a school that “prepares students to succeed in the real world.”
- 20 percent of parents indicated they prioritize a school that “helps students develop critical thinking skills.”
- 20 percent of parents indicated they prioritize a school that “has highly-trained, qualified teachers.”
- 18 percent of parents indicated they prioritize a school that “focuses on core subjects, such as reading, writing, math, science, and history.”
School Choice Success
Fortunately, school choice has shown many advantages and successes throughout the years.
Primarily, when parents have the option to choose the best educational option for their children, they become increasingly involved in their child’s academic success. Numerous studies have shown that parental involvement in a child’s education translates directly into improved overall educational outcomes for the child, regardless of the type of schooling they attend.
In addition, school choice has a positive impact on student safety. Where viable school choice options exist, parents frequently cite school safety as a leading reason for choosing a particular school. And safe schools can be directly correlated to a student’s overall academic performance.
Accessibility for Low-Income Students
School choice options also provide a valuable resource for low-income families. Across Pennsylvania, the choice of school is determined by a family’s zip code. Unfortunately, this model traps many students in poorly funded or underperforming schools. Brick-and-mortar charter schools that open within the geographic area provide a much needed option for parents looking for new opportunities. In addition, cyber charter schools, which are not geographically based, allow families from across Pennsylvania to choose from among 14 great options.
School choice options also save taxpayer dollars. Those opposed to school choice frequently claim that charter schools are “stealing” money from school districts. This could not be more inaccurate. Across the commonwealth, charter schools receive approximately 75% of the funding allocated to public school students. This means that the school district, which determines the cost of educating a child within its borders and has the ability to raise and lower taxes, keeps 25% of the funding to support the students who remain within the traditional brick and mortar buildings. In addition, students whose parents choose private, parochial, or home school options do not receive any financial support for educating their children, but pay their full share of tax dollars to their local school district.
Finally, school choice returns educational accountability to the parents. In the end, the point of school choice is to empower parents with the ability to choose the best educational model for their children. If the parent is dissatisfied with their school’s performance, they can choose a different model that will better support the needs and academic goals of their child.
Keeping School Choice a Reality
Unfortunately, despite the myriad of reasons to support school choice opportunities in Pennsylvania, it remains in political jeopardy. Much of the discussion surrounding school choice is driven primarily by school choice opponents. In Pennsylvania during the 2020-2021 school year, there were over 1.7 million students enrolled in public schools. Charter school enrollment accounts for less than 10% of that number. As a result, the largest voting body remains parents who have chosen traditional public schools. That means, the voices of parents who have chosen something other than the traditional public school can be easily dismissed.
How Parents Can Help
Parent and student advocacy is the only way to ensure that school choice options remain a viable reality for the future of Pennsylvania. Fortunately, there are countless opportunities for advocacy:
- Ensuring that friends, neighbors, and relatives understand the importance of school choice is one of the easiest methods of supporting the movement.
- Writing letters to the editor or submitting op eds to local newspapers is also a great method of ensuring accurate information is disseminated.
- Sharing personal stories with local, statewide, and national school choice organizations can have a dramatic impact.
- Meeting directly with local elected officials can help to shape the conversation and answer questions that can help to change the trajectory of the school choice movement.
Fortunately, the outlook for school choice in Pennsylvania is bright. As more families choose the best education model for their children, the more they recognize and advocate for every family to have a similar choice. While the pandemic may have pushed the conversation faster, it did not supersede the power of real parents who are exerting real power and control over their choice for their children. That is why in January, and every day, we at PA Virtual celebrate the spirit of National School Choice Week.
NOTE: This blog post was originally published in January 2021, and has been updated for accuracy of content.
About the Author: Doug Wessels is the Director of Public Affairs and Accountability at PA Virtual.
Photo credit to National School Choice Week; graph courtesy of author.