Beginning today, January 21, hundreds of thousands of students, parents and teachers across the nation will celebrate National School Choice Week (NSCW). Rallies, events, and all types of school activities are planned. Participants will be wearing yellow scarves emblazoned with the NSCW logo and carrying signs praising the virtues of educational empowerment.
This is NSCW’s eighth year and, with over 32,000 events expected this year, it has quickly grown to become the world’s largest annual celebration of opportunity in education.
I’ve had the privilege of participating in several NSCW events and activities over the past 8 years. It’s a special time to join with teachers and families from all walks of life who have benefited from school choice. It’s also a week to set aside any differences that exist to focus on what unites us — expanding opportunity and education freedom.
My hope is we can experience that same sense of unity this year. Our country feels extremely divided today. Passions appear not to have cooled in the wake of the previous election cycle — if anything, they’ve become hotter. Political and ideological differences often seem intractable and there is concern that these divisions have become too wide and deep to bridge.
The education reform community has long been known for its ability to set its differences aside to work toward a greater aim. It’s long existed as a large and diverse, albeit fragile, alliance between Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives who believed in education choice. However, long-time observers have noted that in the wake of a bitterly partisan election year and education policy disputes at the state and federal levels involving hot button issues of private school choice, accountability, and civil rights, the rifts among education reformers are more exposed than ever.
National School Choice Week gives us a time to refocus and reconnect. We know school choice matters. Every year parents tell us with their voices — and their feet! They want education options for their children and the freedom to choose. The numbers tell the story: 6,800 charter schools serving 3 million students; 41 private school choice programs serving more than 308,000 children; 2.3 million homeschoolers; over 300,000 students in online schools and thousands more in blended schools. Additionally, tens of thousands of teachers have found new jobs and opportunities through school choice.
As NSCW leaders are right to remind us, school choice is not just about alternatives outside the traditional system. It includes our traditional public schools, too. Education choice means the power to select all types of schools, including local public schools and district-run magnet schools. It is not about elevating one school model over another. It’s about elevating parent choice as paramount. Regardless of what school or education model, parent choice should be respected. After all, parents know their children best.
But sometimes the school a child is assigned to attend is not the right fit, and for too many parents, finding an alternative is difficult or impossible. And if that child is left in a situation where he or she is unsafe, or failing academically, or at risk of dropping out of school altogether, then something must change. It’s unacceptable for any child to be trapped in a failing school with no options. The pain a mother or father must feel knowing there is nothing they can do for their child is unimaginable, and the risk that the child becomes another sad social statistic is all too real.
Education is the key that unlocks the prison of poverty and dependency. But an excellent education is not attainable unless it is first accessible. Whether rich or poor, and regardless of color, background, geographic location, or academic need, every student deserves access to education options that work for them. And all parents must possess the right and freedom to choose what they believe is best for their children. That is the central principle that should unite all education reformers.
We can argue about the details of public policy or wave our respective partisan flags for the other 51 weeks. But on this National School Choice Week let’s pledge to put differences aside — set down our pens and throttle down our tweets — and grab a school choice sign and yellow scarf and unite together on behalf of education freedom.
Kevin P. Chavous is an attorney, author, education reform activist and president of academics, policy and schools for K12 Inc. He served as a member of the Council of the District of Columbia from January 1993 to January 2005.