EDITORIAL: National School Choice Week opening vistas of … – Carolinacoastonline

Education has, for well over 150 years, been seen as a simple process of teaching the basics of life skills, the three R’s as they are known – reading, writing and arithmetic. As society, technology and science have advanced so too has the need to make significant changes in the educational environment, but those changes have been slow.

Until recently, traditional district public schools have done a creditable job in educating a mass audience, or customer base, but it has proven in many cases to be ponderous and resistant to change and particularly resistant to choice.

Choice is a relatively new phenomenon in the public venue. When Henry Ford introduced the Model-T, one of the first mass produced automobiles, he was asked about color choices. His response was, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.”

In today’s society, choice is now a given, in any profession or service other than education. But that too is changing.

This week, Jan. 22-28, is being celebrated nationwide as School Choice Week, with the intent of increasing awareness of the options that students, their families and even teachers have when it comes to selecting educational opportunities. In the process, these options, contrary to some opponents’ opinions, are actually improving educational outcomes.

The primary opponents of school choice are teachers’ unions such as the National Education Association, and its affiliate the N.C. Association of Educators, which claims not to be a union since the state does not recognize nor negotiates with unions.

Their opposition is obvious. Any effort to promote school choice, particularly on the part of parents or guardians of students, reduces the influence or outright power of the teachers. As has been seen in previous years, teachers exercise immense control on the environment by just threatening to go on strike. And when they do strike, students and their families find themselves as both the bargaining chip and the victim until such time as the community knuckles under to the demands of the union.

But teachers’ unions are only a part of the overall resistance to school choice. There is also a fear among parents and guardians that they lack sufficient knowledge or experience to make decisions that can have long-term impacts on their children. In essence, it’s a sense that education is too complex for the average person to understand and the public should relegate all their responsibilities to the professionals.

That perception was challenged as parents and guardians watched their children struggle to learn in the virtual classroom environment forced upon them and their teachers in response to the closure of schools during the year-and-a-half of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because the learning environment was taking place in the homes, parents and guardians were able to scrutinize the learning structure as well as examine the curriculum which many had heretofore just accepted, with the expectation that it met their understanding of what was being taught.

That new awareness and the subsequent frustration with the decline in the learning experience has created what some observers describe as the “lost generation” of students, as indicated by declining achievement scores in comparison to previous years.

As the current traditional school year started, national enrollment in public primary and secondary schools showed a decline of nearly 900,000 fewer students, approximately 1.7% below the previous year. At the same time enrollment in alternatives such as private, public charter and home school increased.

According to the National School Choice Week Foundation, more than 1 in every 6 children in the N.C. school system have opted for educational alternatives other than traditional district public schools

Meg Kilgannon, senior fellow for Educational Studies at the Family Research Council, is quoted in her organization’s newsletter Washington Stand, saying that, “‘Our one size fits all’ approach to elementary and secondary education doesn’t serve the needs of every child or every family.” After the experience of the past three years parents and the public in general have come to realize that there is a need for change and choice.

State legislatures nationwide are quickly accepting this desire for academic freedom, where students are not restricted on education opportunities based on their zip code residence. They have initiated programs providing financial support for students to seek the education that best suits their needs and expectations.

Arizona is leading the way with an educational saving account (ESA) program available to all primary and secondary school students, providing up to $7,000 per student per year to be used for tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, homeschool curricula and other educational services. West Virginia has established the “Hope Scholarship,” which provides up to $4,300 in financial support for students opting for alternatives other than the traditional public district school experience.

North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarships are not yet so generous. That program is targeted only to low and modest income families with $6,169 in an annual stipend for students to pursue private and specialized education. But the state has continued to promote the establishment of public charter schools and has removed what was a cap limiting the number of credentialed schools to 100. Now there are 204 charter schools, but that number hardly meets the demand as 60,000 students remain on waiting lists.

Even N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt has embraced the need for change. In commenting about the value of the state’s Charter School program she noted that “we celebrate National School Choice Week and the opportunity to empower parents and students as they make the decision that best fits their child’s needs and educational journey.”

She is correct. A successful education begins with opening vistas for the students, so it stands to reason that those vistas should include educational choices and not be relegated to ‘one size fits all.’

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