Trump and DeVos add momentum as school choice marches on
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One of the most inspirational scenes is watching a city public school celebrate a graduating class of seniors. One such moment took place last June in Newark, New Jersey, at a high school graduation ceremony filled with students adorned in caps and gowns. In the room, family and friends beamed with excitement and pride.

But this wasn’t your typical ceremony, nor was it a traditional high school. This school introduced its first-ever graduating class of a uniquely designed public charter school — indeed the first of its kind. The students graduating that day were not assigned to this school based on ZIP code or district boundaries.

They were graduating from a school they chose: Newark Prep Charter School. The highlight here? It was their school of choice.

School choice has generated quite a bit of headlines and debate lately. The election of President Trump has amplified that discussion. His pledge to make school choice a centerpiece of his education agenda — a proposal that is attracting much attention and scrutiny — along with his nomination of school choice champion Betsy DeVos for secretary of Education has added fuel to an idea that has gained tremendous traction over the past two decades. 

Momentum is growing, and not just because of the recent election results or the DeVos nomination, either. This week is National School Choice Week (Jan. 22 to 28), a time when parents, teachers and students are raising awareness highlighting the difference school choice has made in their lives. Organizers estimate more than 20,000 total events taking place across the U.S., including rallies in Washington, D.C. and many state capitals — the largest ever series of education-related events in the U.S. — and over 500 official proclamations from governors, mayors and county officials.

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In addition to traditional schools, public education options now include charter schools, magnet schools, blended and online schools. Their growth can’t be ignored or understated — from one Minnesota state law in 1991 establishing the first charter school to now 43 states, plus the District of Columbia, enacting such laws.

 

In 2003, there were 3,000 charter schools. Today, however, there are now more than 6,500 charter schools serving nearly 3 million students nationwide. Thousands more students are on waiting lists.

Private schools and homeschooling continue to grow, too, as families seek a greater range of options for their kids beyond the traditional public system (between 2007 and 2014, the number of homeschooled children spiked by 17 percent). To compliment that growth, states are enacting school choice-friendly policies such as education savings accounts, opportunity scholarships, inter-district open enrollment, digital course choice and more.

Many of these programs are designed specifically to support economically disadvantaged students or children with special needs. Currently, there are 21 tax-credit scholarship programs in 17 states serving more than 255,000 students. An additional 175,000 students in 14 states are using vouchers to attend private schools.

According to an annual poll conducted by American Federation for Children, support for school choice has remained consistently high over a three-year period, ranging between 68 and 70 percent in favor. Support crosses all demographics. Latinos and African-Americans, the two largest minority groups in the United States, are among the strongest supporters of school choice (75 percent and 72 percent, respectively).

Despite the frequent political debates school choice ignites, it is a bipartisan issue, with a majority of self-identified Democrats and Republicans expressing support.

It’s not hard to understand that when parents are given the flexibility, freedom and means to choose a school or learning program for their kids, they want to preserve that right and see others enjoy the same. What occurs is a natural domino effect: Every year, growing numbers of families participate in some form of school choice.

Still, it doesn’t mean there is there is no resistance to the domino effect. School choice remains one of the most hotly debated topics in Washington and in every statehouse and city hall across the country. 

The fiercest opponents contend that any ounce of school choice hurts all of public education. Yet there’s simply no evidence that the existence and growth of charter schools, private schools and other options have led to the deterioration of traditional public schools.

In fact, the opposite is true. Choice schools are often pioneers or first movers in the introduction of new learning models, new technology, and advanced pedagogy in the education space. They create new environments to test fresh concepts that, if successful, are eventually adopted by school districts, increasing opportunities for all students. Choice schools create healthy incentives for public schools to innovative, improve, and implement new models.

We’ve seen this clearly with technology. The growth of online and blended schools, in particular, have given rise to innovative digital learning content and technology learning platforms and devices, which are now increasingly being used in traditional schools. According to Project Tomorrow, teachers’ use of digital content in classrooms — online curriculum, online textbooks, game-based learning and video content — has grown rapidly over the past five years. 

School choice also recognizes diversity in perspective, thought and dreams. Not every child thinks alike. Expanding choice has helped create a renaissance in new customized education programs — from schools developed for students pursuing science and technology, career and technical education, or music and fine arts, to schools designed to serve students with special needs, at-risk youth or former dropouts.

These types of schools, and many others, are now all deeply woven into the fabric of America’s education system. Choice schools don’t restrict education opportunities; they increase them.

But, more than anything else, school choice is about empowerment. The wealthy and privileged are already empowered because they can exercise school choice at their will. They have the means to choose elite private or parochial schools, or even relocate to homes in the affluent neighborhoods with well-funded and modernized local schools.

Sadly, that is not the case for many families, especially among the economically disadvantaged. But every parent wants that kind of choice and all students deserve education options that work for them.

On that exciting summer day, I had the honor to shake the hands of all the Newark Prep Charter School graduates. Each had their own success story, like David Crawford and Brianna Amos who both credited the ability to choose their high school with the opportunity to earn a high school degree and choose college.

"I found a place where I can be myself and learn freely without the pressures I felt at my other school," said Amos, the 2016 Class Valedictorian.

And so, for Crawford and Amos, their fellow graduates, and so many others to follow, school choice marches on.

Nate Davis is executive chairman of K12 Inc., a technology-based education company and leading provider of online learning programs to schools across the U.S. He is also a regular contributor in The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @VoicesofK12.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.