With more than 33,000 events happening across the country during National School Choice Week — from the White House to houses like yours — it’s hard to imagine why there’s a state in this nation that doesn’t change the power structure and money flow that prevents everyone from breaking out of their zoned public schools if that’s what best suits them. While we still have a long way to go, however, these events represent a powerful cultural shift.
In the 30-plus year struggle to reform education, we’ve seen the concept of expanding opportunities and options for kids move from being simply an idea (dismissed by the establishment) to a cause (derided by the status quo) to a growing reality (decried by unions and bureaucrats) to a dominating philosophy about reshaping education (much to the ongoing anger and indignation of the power elite). We heard from an extensive array of leaders, students, and lawmakers on why there is so much strength behind this movement to make new education choices. (A special edition of my podcast Reality Check highlights their stories of educational opportunity.)
“I believe this is the civil rights issue of our time,” said Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind. “We have to become a nation that fulfills the promise of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence — that we’re all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them, the opportunity to succeed. In modern life, that starts with a quality education. We can be a nation where every child has access to a quality education.”
It’s been an interesting journey. The obstacles and objections to education opportunity have always ranged from annoying to outrageous. Annoying, in the paternalistic eye-rolling and rejection of parental demands by the we-know-best establishment. Outrageous, in the billions of dollars spent propping up failed systems at the expense of expanding opportunities and options and in the hundreds of millions spent on lobbying and political action to stifle reform and preserve the status quo. But, as NSCW illustrates, opportunity is winning out.
As House Education and Workforce Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., told me, “When parents have choice, as in everything else in our country, competition makes things better. I’m a huge believer in choice.” And with good reason.
Denisha Merriweather was able to attend a private school thanks to the Florida Step Up for Students program ,which is funded by tax credits and has provided more than 399,000 scholarships since its inception in 2001. Denisha, now an official at the Department of Education, said the school was transformational. “I went from Ds and Fs to straight As. I was surrounded by people who cared about me, helped me apply to college — something that I didn’t know was possible.”
Lest anyone think NSCW is a one-dimensional, fringe promotional stunt, it’s not. The 7-year old weeklong celebration is a nonpartisan, nonpolitical, independent public awareness effort that is not associated with any legislative lobbying or advocacy.
The other thing NSCW is not, it’s not about one or two options. Its goal is to expose the nation to all the potential learning opportunities for children and students, at all levels. By doing precisely that, one of the nation’s pioneers in school choice, the Cleveland Scholarship program, the test case for the Supreme Court and ruled constitutional in 2002, was the key driver in helping thousands of students climb out of poverty.
“I firmly believe that the proper education has the ability to change lives, to break the poverty cycle, especially in African American families,” said scholarship alum and now college student Walter Banks. “It made all the difference for me.”
As PublicSchoolOptions.org Board Member Colleen Cook put it, “I firmly believe that the only right choice for a child is the choice that fits the child best.”
That’s the view shared all over the nation; no matter who you talk to, or where you go — from urban to rural America, across political, racial, and socioeconomic lines — support for new opportunities and new schools of choice for children and families nationwide is irrefutable. America knows schools are not working for most students and that to succeed in life they need expanded educational opportunities — driven by innovation, freedom, and flexibility — that will lead to improved economic outcomes and bring the American Dream to within reach of all.
These voices are critical to maintaining momentum of reform and realizing systemic change. But it’s the voices of hopeful students and visionary parents, of school leaders and state lawmakers that have brought the demand for education options to national prominence, and they remain today’s most powerful ambassadors for spurring opportunity and innovation and ending inequitable education by zip code.
So, here’s to National School Choice Week and to all the voices — 6.7 million of them — who are helping make educational opportunities available, and to all the parents and children who are claiming rights that should have been theirs from the beginning.
Jeanne Allen (@JeanneAllen) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is CEO and founder of the Center for Education Reform.
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