An education in 'school choice'

Posted: Aug 06, 2003 12:00 AM

My husband and I have always been blessed with enough of an income that the educational choices we make for our kids are based more on our children's needs than on what is "affordable." We also both share a commitment to jointly take the responsibility for making sure our kids are taught in whatever manner is best for them at a given time in their lives. We've kept on top of the ever-growing choices in education and taken advantage of them – we've had our children in public schools, private schools and we even homeschooled them for five years.

My term for what we practice is "parent-directed education," as in parents are in charge, parents make the decisions and parents do the research to support those decisions. For involved moms and dads, for those who can and will take the time to truly study what is best for their children each year, the freedom to choose from among those three options or others – such as charter schools – is a tremendous blessing.

At the same time, I realize that I'm lucky. I know there are a lot of good, dedicated parents out there who can't do what I do. It's quite amazing that the educational establishment continues to fight against the ability of poor families to have greater educational choices for their children. But I'm happy to report that those who would deny families choices are beginning to lose their battle for control.

A few examples of the emerging educational choices that are liberating more and more children from second-rate, crime-ridden schools:

  • As of May, 40 states and the District of Columbia had adopted laws that allow for charter schools – public, open-admission schools that operate free of the traditional public-school bureaucracy so they can foster innovation among teachers and, hopefully, improve learning among students.

  • Some states have initiated tax credits parents can use to send their kids to private schools, public schools outside their districts, or for costs associated with home schooling and on-line schools.

  • Several places now have full-blown or developing voucher programs to enable kids in failing schools to escape to better-performing private and parochial schools.

How to keep up with new choices in your state? Now it's easy; check out the nation's most comprehensive record of educational freedom: "School Choice 2003:How States are Providing Greater Opportunity in Education." This online, free resource from the Heritage Foundation, includes much of what parents need to know to make informed decisions about their children's education. You'll find statistics on traditional public schools, public charter schools and private schools regarding enrollment, teacher-pupil ratio, number of schools and other data.

"School Choice 2003" also provides such measures of student achievement as the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in math, science and reading for each state, academic achievement rankings from the American Legislative Exchange Council and state rankings on the Education Freedom Index from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

The book also includes a snapshot of where school-reform efforts stand in each state and a state-by-state list of educational-reform organizations.

Krista Kafer, the editor of "School Choice 2003" and a top education-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, says she longs for the day when the book can gather dust because its findings on progress on school choice have become so unremarkable. Fortunately, we seem to be headed that way.

Parents know they've poured billions of dollars into public education – per pupil spending climbed 75 percent between 1970 and 1995, and the student-teacher ratio fell 25 percent over the same period – with little to show for it. They have become frustrated, as Secretary of Education Rod Paige points out in his foreword to the book, because they know that no matter how badly many schools perform, their budgets won't be cut, their enrollments won't decline and they won't be closed down.

This frustration is a large part of why a half-million children attend one of the nation's 2,700 charter schools and why 2 million are now home-schooled, thanks in part to Michael Farris at the Home School Legal Defense Association, whose work has made homeschooling a reality for parents all across this great country.

We can all celebrate the fact that there are more choices than ever in every state regarding how, when and where our children will be educated, giving parents yet more freedom to determine the course of their own kids' lives.