Let's have a national conversation on school choice

When young Americans apply to college, they have access to our country’s full slate of higher education options--public and private schools, major research universities, liberal arts colleges, community and technical colleges, and so forth. Young adults are free to apply to any college or university that fits their learning style and social needs, with the confidence that the federal financial aid system that they and their parents pay into with tax money will follow them to whichever school they choose.

While far from perfect, the American higher education system is the envy of the modern world. But with our K-12 system lagging well behind those of many other industrialized nations, we continue to cling to the policies of the past, letting government decide which schools parents are allowed to send their children to. It’s long past time to apply the college mentality to elementary, middle, and high schools, and allow parents to “shop” for these schools with their own tax money to find the best fit for their children.

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The American K-12 education system faces perhaps the most daunting task of any in the world. Over 70 million children live in the United States, and they come from every background imaginable, speaking dozens of languages at home, and growing up in settings as varied as urban New York, rural North Dakota, and the melting pot of California. With the most demographically diverse youth population in the world, it would be unreasonable to expect any singular educational program to be able to adequately meet the needs of each of these children.

Yet, for far too long, we’ve asked governments--federal, state, and local--to run a one-size-fits-all public education system, and we’ve been disappointed by government’s failure to accomplish this impossible task. The problem with K-12 public education isn’t funding or testing, but that no single school is able to fully unlock the potential of every child it serves. Students need a range of educational options, and parents are far better positioned to review this options and decide on the best fit for their child than any government bureaucrat or elected school board ever will be.

Fortunately, a full range of options exists, including traditional brick-and-mortar public schools, charter and magnet schools, virtual classrooms, private and religious schools, and homeschooling. Families with means are generally able to choose from any or all of these options, but for low-income parents, the local district’s public school is often the only choice, even if their children are far better suited to grow and learn in a different setting.

Opportunity scholarships can solve this problem. These programs, which are working to great effect in states like Indiana and Louisiana, return parents’ educational tax contribution to them in the form of a scholarship that can be used at any accredited school--much as Pell Grants and other forms of federal financial aid can be used at any public or private college. With the money that they’ve already spent on education back in their hands, parents can truly assume control over their children’s futures, and compare the attributes of various schools against each other. Families might choose a large public high school for one child, a small school specializing in arts for another, and a partially-online charter school for a third, all without having to dip into their savings. Moreover, as the cost of educating a child outside a traditional public school is often lower than present per-pupil spending, opportunity scholarships save school districts money, allowing them to reinvest in teachers, facilities, and technology.

School choice isn’t just an educational or economic issue however--it’s a moral one. The right school can permanently change a child’s life for the better and open up a world of opportunities, and for many low-income families, the present system keeps that school just out of their reach. Opportunity scholarships can shatter this unjust ceiling.

State governments are leading the way in expanding educational opportunities, but the conversation about school choice needs to happen at every level of government, in every corner of America. This week, let’s put the partisan bickering aside and focus on what we can do together to help children succeed.

Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. National School Choice Week is Jan. 26 to Feb. 1.