The Real Promise That School Choice Offers

Realistic expectations are important.

School choice is not a panacea, but as last month's school choice week showed, with more than 32,000 celebrations among 20,000 schools and 5,000 home school organizations, choice makes it easier to find the best option for our kids.

Some choice advocates claim that these programs are a sort of silver bullet that will magically solve all of our education woes. That's not true, and it can actually undermine efforts to bring about good change.

School choice is not an intervention. It's not a pill you take. It's more a chance to reach into the medicine cabinet and grab a bottle. Whether that will help depends on what's in that cabinet.

If we're being honest, the promise of school choice is not that, tomorrow, schools will magically be "better." The promise is that, over the long haul, things like charter schooling, voucher programs and educational savings accounts will create room for individuals to innovate, problem-solve and build. They can empower educators and families to create and choose better schools.

For Rick Hess, education policy scholar, choice is about empowerment, an organic vision for education, and a chance for educators to innovate and experiment outside typical district boundaries and curricula.

Few older organizations, in any sector, are good at managing change. Organizations grow rigid with time, which makes it difficult to take advantage of new technology or address changing needs. When we tell educators that the only path to re-imagining schools or schooling is to "fix" aged systems or schools, we can put them in a nearly impossible position.

Think about it: How many businesses are still around after 50, 100 years? Not many. Yet, America's K-12 education model is more than 100 years old. How much cultural upheaval will it take for changes in the existing school system to be more than “cosmetic and inch-deep”?

It's not merely about bringing newer buildings online, it's about removing structural barriers that prevent students, teachers, and parents from exploring new ways of learning.

Because school choice is an opportunity and not a solution, its success rests on having the ecosystem in place to cultivate and support good new schools. Since they first entered the picture more than a quarter-century ago, charter schooling and school voucher programs have enjoyed real success, but far less than advocates anticipated. I suspect this is partly because many advocates spent so much energy insisting that choice "works" that they spent less time than they should have focusing on what it takes to make it likely that choice will work.

What school choice really offers students and their parents is a chance to try something innovative and nimble enough to incorporate change when needed. For those that fail, the student doesn't remain in a crumbling structure. They are permitted the chance to move to the next model and try something else on for size. No wonder the school choice movement is now faces so many institutional opponents.

What's your experience with the public school system? Has your child succeeded in a traditional public school or a school choice program? Tell us your story?

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