Education, Exclusives, Featured, Politics, Uncategorized

Johnson: Build on open enrollment to expand educational choice

They say you don’t appreciate something till it’s gone. For me, that hit home this past year with our children’s in-person education. As schools across the state moved to remote learning, students began to suffer damaging academic, mental, and emotional consequences. Parents strained to make the juggling act work. Yet despite schools being one of the safest places for children and teachers, traditional public schools (TPS) have largely remained closed for in-person learning—prolonging the significant harm to our children and their future.

Of note, many charter and private schools have remained open for in-person learning while creating a safe and successful environment for their students and teachers.

Families are desperately searching for what they can do. How can they convince school districts to put our children’s education first? Voicing your opinion to school boards is important. “Voting with your feet,” by taking advantage of public school open enrollment, is another significant way to take further ownership of your child’s education—thereby setting them on a pathway for a more productive and fulfilling life.

Open enrollment

Colorado’s public school open enrollment law, which hundreds of thousands of Colorado families exercise every year, empowers families to choose the public school that works best for their child—be it their assigned neighborhood school or even one outside their school district, as well as charter, magnet, or online schools. Most open enrollment programs are taking applications this month for the 2021/22 school year, but many have fast-approaching deadlines. Find out more about your school district’s open enrollment policies here.

Why does open enrollment (i.e., public school choice) matter?  Below, I’ll highlight the benefits of school choice—with a focus on charter schools–and propose that Colorado should expand it to encompass private schools and other innovative formats.

Why school choice

Given how important in-person learning is for children, it’s no surprise that support for school choice has recently surged to 77% among parents of public school students.

But the benefits of public school choice go well beyond in-person learning. They include:

Closing achievement gaps: Charters are public schools that accept greater accountability in exchange for greater autonomy. They especially shine in closing academic achievement gaps for minority and low-income students. Numerous studies illustrate this, including Denver schools specifically and Colorado schools generally. Unsurprisingly, support for school choice is strongest among Black and Hispanic families.

Why the stronger results? 1) Unlike the rigid TPS system, charter public schools have more flexibility on how they educate students, and 2) Families choose to attend charters. Therefore, the school needs to serve them well to retain them. Accountability to students beats accountability to bureaucrats.

More efficient use of taxpayer dollars: The public-school system does not have a funding problem. Per-pupil spending has surged an inflation-adjusted 280% since 1970 in the U.S—one of the highest spending levels in the world–yet academic performance has remained stagnant.  Charter schools, however, receive lower funding per pupil than TPS—on average 33% lower—but do more with less. More efficient use of tax-payer dollars is a win for all of us!

Benefits to teachers and traditional public schools: Competition benefits the consumer and this is true in education. Where public school choice exists, TPS performance is shown to improve in an effort to retain students.

Competition also benefits teachers. School choice programs can increase teachers’ salaries by creating more demand for good teachers.

We all benefit when parents can choose the right school for their child. But frequently long wait-lists at charters is one confirmation that there isn’t enough choice. Colorado now should expand choice beyond public schools—further enabling parents to choose the right education for their child.

Expand choice beyond public schools

In a sobering but motivating study, while 83% of children attend TPS, only 34% of their parents say they would choose those schools if given a real choice. Colorado can narrow that gap by doing what 29 other states and the District of Columbia do—empower private school choice. Here’s why it’s a good idea:

It’s already happening: Pell Grants, the GI Bill, and Head Start are taxpayer-funded programs that can be used at private institutions. Why exclude K-12 students from this choice? After all, shouldn’t we be funding students, not systems? The majority of states understand this and Colorado should as well.

Broad support, especially among minority and low-income families: Support for expanding choice beyond public schools is growing, with the strongest support from Black and Hispanic families. 81 percent of parents approve of Education Savings Accounts, which supercharge parents’ ability to choose the right education for their children. Who are we to say “No” to these families?

Other benefits of expanding choice beyond public schools include:

  • Further improves academic outcomes—especially for minority, low-income, and special needs children as well as students who remain in public school
  • Enhances student safety
  • Saves taxpayers money and can increase public school funding per pupil
  • Fuels a growing need for education innovation—evident in parents’ desire for more choice and the increase in formats such as homeschooling groups, private tutoring, and micro-schools
  • Prioritizes the unique student’s education above all else. Isn’t that a school system’s purpose?

We owe it to our children to take full advantage of school choice—even if to verify that their neighborhood school is the right choice for them. Public school open enrollment is the current vehicle for accessing school choice in Colorado and many districts’ enrollment windows are now open for the coming school year.

As we look forward, let’s advocate for expanding school choice beyond public schools–empowering parents to choose the best education for their child. That will lead to better academic outcomes for children, stronger communities, and a brighter future for our nation.

Will Johnson writes frequently on Colorado issues.  He lives in Highlands Ranch.

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