Empowering Parents to Make Choices
Among the many debates in K-12 education, contention over school choice has garnered significant political interest and action over the past year. In spite of recent polls showing that 77% of Americans support school choice, many states and organizations are seeking to limit options outside local district schools. More jarring is that many of these efforts appear to be a direct response to families taking a proactive interest in where they send their kids to school, caused in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic. The following examples are just that, examples of systematic opposition to school choice programs in order to protect government hegemony.
In spring of 2020, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued executive orders to close all public schools, which according to the Oregon Department of Education, included online schools as well. Once distance learning became necessary due to prolonged health concerns, Oregon lawmakers took preemptive action to protect brick and mortar schools by implementing a moratorium on any online school enrollment during campus closures. For a time, Oregon Connections Academy’s enrollment page read:
Due to Governor Brown’s Executive Order 20–08, as of March 27, 2020 the Oregon Department of Education has advised that no students are able to withdraw or enroll in any schools during the school closure. This closure lasts through April 28, 2020 and this timeline could potentially be extended.
By eliminating funding for new students in experienced, full-time, online schools the Governor enforced a status quo that can be construed as equitable, but to the singular advantage of the brick and mortar institutions and, more importantly, to the great disadvantage to families that were hoping to continue their student’s full-time education at an online school.
In Pennsylvania, the legislature took similar steps during the height of the pandemic. Mark DiRicco of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators issued the following statement: “We have been hearing from a lot of superintendents who feel that they are at a disadvantage… Districts are dealing with a lot right now. We didn’t want to see them get into another financial loss because 50 or 60 or 100 kids decided to go to a cyber charter.” The legislation (Senate Bill 751), which was signed into law on March 27th, secured school funding based on enrollments as of March 13th. While this means brick-and-mortar school budgets will be held harmless if students withdraw, this creates a similar situation as seen in Oregon.
The most recent example comes from California, when the state legislature passed Senate Bill 98. In a signing letter, Gov. Newsom indicated that “while maintaining school funding at current levels allows for stability in the public education system, it does not take into account schools that had planned expansions. By not funding those expansions, families enrolled in those schools may be displaced, with impacts exacerbated by the uncertainties caused by COVID-19.” Although district growth was impacted by the signing of SB98, charter schools across California were forced to cease enrollment or worse, place students back on the waitlist because, once again, funding for these students would not be forthcoming.
The financial strain of the pandemic has put excess burden on state and local economies which has inescapably impacted funding stability for schools. However, the threat of scarcity has laid bare a deep seeded commitment to protect government institutions rather than the education of students. If lawmakers and school leaders were to prioritize actual education, particularly among the backdrop of a pandemic, the focus of any policy would be to promote learning whether it is through a district school, charter school, private school, home school, micro-school or pod.
The increasing support for school choice programs among every demographic, especially in the last year, is a rejection of paternalism within education. No longer content with zip codes, enrollment caps, or government policy obstructing access to better educational opportunities, families are waking up to the idea that bureaucrats and lawmakers cannot, and should not, be unilaterally determining what is in the best interest for their children.
Just as the goal of education itself should be to empower students with knowledge and skills to make informed choices in their best interests, a democratically free educational system should empower families to take ownership and responsibility for their children’s education. If a publicly funded school system is to persist, government policy cannot pick winners and losers because the ultimate losers will be students. Instead, policymakers should be exploring alternative funding systems that encourage and support the choices of families in line with the freedoms we enjoy elsewhere in our lives.
Cody Bendix, Guest Contributor | Serving as the Corporate Communications Director for StrongMind, Cody has dedicated his professional career to advancing K-12 education across the country. Starting his career with Great Hearts Academies, Cody was instrumental in the marketing, public relations, and advocacy for one of the nation’s fastest growing public charter school systems. Since joining StrongMind in 2019, he has dedicated his efforts to driving innovation and expanding access to high quality schools for all students.