Edu-Unicorns and #SchoolChoiceWeek

As most realize, this week is National School Choice Week. By organizers’ count, there will be more than 16,000 events this week across the country, with more than 230 local or state officials recognizing the event and wearing the trademark yellow scarves all in the name of choice.

I was over on KNX 1070 NewsRadio in Los Angeles to discuss what school choice really meant. There, producers wanted to dig a little deeper than the traditional talking points, and try to learn what school choice really means for California families.

Surprisingly, California already seems to be close to an ideal when it comes to choice. Nearly one in four school-aged children is already enjoying school choice, with 9 percent going to private schools, 8 percent attending public charters, 5 percent going to magnets, and almost three percent choosing the homeschool option. It’s a relative cornucopia of K-12 school pathways. It’s a quarter of students (and their families) opting out of the traditional public school pathways and choosing another route seen as best for them and their young learners.

But questions from the show’s hosts demonstrate how school choice has become a quest for that edu-unicorn. That parents are choosing charter schools because it guarantees a better education, a better chance at graduation, and a better chance of getting into a good college. That families are choosing private schools because the teachers are just plain better there. That homeschooling ensures the most successful path of them all.

I’ll admit, charter schools are not at the top of the list of edu-topics I usually like to talk about. In the current rhetorical frame, we forget that charters were originally intended as incubators to help improve the traditional public schools (and thus education for all students, and not just the select number who get into charters). We forget that parents originally chose charters because they were the “safer” option, and keeping kids safe was the top priority. We overlook that for every terrific charter school — like those in Democracy Prep — we also have a number of lousy charters. And we can’t miss that many charters promised to build a better mousetrap under the available frames, only to come back and tell voters that the only way they get those results is through a major influx of new tax dollars (despite never saying they needed to match traditional publics dollar for dollar to deliver the promised results).

So I took my time on KNX to correct a few things:

  • The research is mixed on the academic differences between charter schools and traditional publics. There are some studies that show a real difference, some that don’t. The ultimate answer lies in the specific charter school and its specific successes, not in it simply being a charter school.
  • Yes, charters do a good job graduating kids and moving them on to college. This is particularly true when one compares inner-city charters with the public high schools we used to call “drop-out factories.”
  • Private schools are indeed an option. But few families can afford to send their kids to the top private schools, even when vouchers were in place (and they never were in Cali). Even with vouchers, choice usually resulted in attendance at Catholic schools, not the top-tier privates attended by the children of presidents, governors, and senators. And those Catholic schools can also be hit or miss.
  • Before choosing a private school, parents need to realize that they are already paying for the traditional public schools and the charter schools already in their communities. Without vouchers, they get none of those tax dollars back, and then have to pay for private schools out of pocket, meaning they are paying twice for the same K-12 education.
  • Homeschooling is indeed a viable choice, but families must be realistic about what it entails. Homeschoolers will still be competing with other students when it comes to college admission. They largely still have to take the same standardized tests to get there. So it falls to parents to both develop and administer a high-quality instructional program that moves students successfully down those paths.

I don’t offer these points to discourage anyone. I did so to make sure that we see the whole picture when discussing our kids’ education and the options available to them. A great education can be had from even the most struggling of traditional public schools. A great charter school doesn’t necessarily work for every child. And writing a check to a private school doesn’t guarantee a good education at all.

Parents need to be educated consumers when it comes to their children’s education. They need to understand data about enrollment and student retention and student performance. They need to understand what is expected from educators in the school and how they are supported. They need to know what tests are taken AND how assessment data is used as part of the teaching process. And they need to determine what is most important to them — the general safety of their child, increased odds of getting into college, a diverse curriculum filled with art and non-core subjects, a disciplinarian approach that emphasizes respect, or something completely different.

We can’t find all of these items in one school. As parents, all we can do is search for the best learning options for our own kids. And we must recognize that the edu-unicorn — that one school that offers everything we every dreamed of and more — likely isn’t out there. School choice is about prioritization. Of all the factors, which is most important to the family? If we can’t have everything, what is the non-negotiable?

School Choice Week is ultimately about learning. It is about understanding the options and really knowing what each of those options mean when it comes to our kids and to our families. It doesn’t mean we need to make a new choice or choose a new path. It means we need to be vigilant about knowing what is available to our kids and what is best for their behaviors, learning styles, and long-term goals.

(This commentary originally appeared on the Eduflack blog.)

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