How can we expand the meaning of choice?

School choice has been the most prominent piece of the incoming Administration’s education platform. President Trump has promised to expand charter schools and private-school vouchers; his nominee for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has spent millions to advance school choice.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that education leaders are spending so much energy today debating the future of charter schools and vouchers. But there are two problems with focusing our national attention so much on those issues: First, any reasonable vision of school choice leaves many high-need students untouched. And, second, this definition of choice leaves some powerful — but rarely discussed — new tools out of the conversation.

It’s not that conversations about charter schools and vouchers aren’t important. The existence of charter schools enables public funds to support public schools that are established and managed outside the traditional school system; in voucher programs, public funds can flow to private schools. Some charter schools have made enormous contributions, especially for traditionally underserved students.

But across the country, charter schools and magnet schools serve only about 10% of our nation’s public school students combined — and in no reasonable vision would that number more than, say, double in the foreseeable future. Even in that ambitious scenario, that leaves perhaps 80% of public school students who may have few schools to choose from, especially in rural areas where one school often serves the entire community.

How then do we create real options for the vast majority of students who have limited access to school choice? The nation’s new education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — has a little-discussed, but important provision that could establish a vital new range of options.This provision could help expand instructional choice to a significant number of students to gain access to a variety of educational opportunities not otherwise available to them.

Last year, Congress passed ESSA to replace No Child Left Behind, which required struggling schools to adopt specific policies or risk losing federal funding. As the new law took shape through debates on Capitol Hill, Chiefs for Change members advocated for the creation of a provision called Direct Student Services (DSS).

Through DSS, states and school districts can collaborate using federal Title I funds to develop their own school improvement strategies, and create a greater range of options for students within school districts. There is significant flexibility in which strategies educators can pursue — including increasing access to advanced coursework, supporting personalized learning, and providing high-quality individual tutoring — but it is ultimately up to state and local leaders to decide how best to leverage the funding.

If all states participate, approximately $425 million in DSS funds would be available for innovative programs each year, based on current appropriations levels. State-specific funding ranges from approximately $1 million to $54 million based on state Title I allocations.

Direct Student Service programs could support several different types of teaching and learning opportunities — regardless of whether a school is a charter, magnet, or traditional public school. For example, DSS could expand online dual enrollment programs that allow students to earn college credits while still in high school — making it much more affordable to earn an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree even if a student lives far away from their local college.

Schools could also adopt advanced career and technical education programs that help students earn valuable, professional credentials, or offer paid internships to launch students’ careers. Access to coursework not otherwise available in their school can help support students in being better prepared for college and careers and bridge significant equity gaps that currently exist across schools and districts.

When schools expand the range of programs they offer students, an additional benefit is more resources for educators to explore and hone their craft through DSS programs. Ultimately, this additional capacity can help educators create classrooms that better meet the individual needs of students in order to help all of them thrive.

As with any new initiative, the success of Direct Student Services depends on the quality of its design and implementation. That is why our network of leaders worked collaboratively to create a model application that states can customize to best fit their needs. The model includes a step-by-step process for creating partnerships that build on the best ideas in local schools.

Under the new law, states that decide to move forward with DSS programs must implement them through collaborations with a diverse array of stakeholders including families, educators, and policymakers. The outreach required to build those partnerships is essential for making sure that DSS programs effectively serve their communities.

Whether students are planning to pursue a Bachelor’s degree or a credential to jumpstart their career, they should have the opportunity to choose a path that reflects how they learn best. For some families, that can mean enrolling in a school of their choice that best meets their needs. But for the majority of families, real choice starts with creating new types of courses, different ways for students to invest their time at school, and better ways of preparing students to contribute to their communities. This type of instructional choice creates more opportunities for students to exercise agency and ownership over their learning and academic pathways.

The new law opens up a wide and exciting range of possibilities for instructional choice that can take place at far broader scale and help students that other choice options may never reach. Let’s have a new conversation that reflects the exciting new possibilities.

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