Saving Education and Tennessee's Future

December 3, 2014 11:34AM

Beacon Senior Fellow Jonathan Butcher’s op-ed was published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal explaining the benefits of school choice. You can read the initial piece here if you subscribe to the Commercial Appeal, otherwise the full text is below. A public school teacher will have a lot to say about the students in her classroom. A public school teacher who is also a mom will know plenty about her class and, especially, the children that are uniquely hers. Julie Lopez, a teacher and a mom, could tell that her son was not going to fit in the typical classroom. An early reader, Joseph was ready for schoolwork before entering kindergarten, but Julie feared he would act out if his teacher spent more time on certain subjects. “According to his birthdate, he would have started kindergarten when he was five,” she says, adding, “I couldn’t see him patiently waiting (in a classroom).” Julie chose to home school Joseph, becoming one of the 9 million families across the United States who home school, enroll their child in a private school, select a charter school or virtual school, or some combination of these to educate their children. Approximately three out of four school-aged children in the U.S. attend an assigned local public school. New learning options have not made traditional schools disappear. It’s a safe bet that traditional schools will continue to have their doors open even as more families choose other educational options. Remarkably, a survey of 23 empirical studies on school choice programs’ effects on traditional school students finds that in every study but one, public school student outcomes improved as more of their peers chose a different learning experience. (The remaining study found no impact on public school student achievement.) Student achievement and parent satisfaction in places where parents can choose how a child is educated are remarkably stable. Lawmakers should want ideas like these that give every child the chance to achieve, not just children from families who can afford a better school or move to a new neighborhood. Recent news about new charter school operators coming to Shelby County has some parents afraid that “outsiders” are coming to run their child’s school. Yet educational options do not have to pit one school against another. The Beacon Center of Tennessee’s new guide, “Allowing Children to Dream Big: School Choice Opportunities for Tennessee Families,” explains that families across Tennessee are making choices about where and how their children are educated. From private school scholarships here in Memphis to charter schools in Nashville, parents across the state are choosing to find the best possible way to educate their children. For more than 20 years, charter schools and private school scholarships have helped children assigned to failing schools around the U.S. find better opportunities. Still, traditional schools enroll students every August. Just because some parents who could not afford private school tuition or did not have a charter school in their neighborhood now do have these alternatives does not mean that every public school is going to close. These alternatives give new choices to families who didn’t have good schools and learning options before. But there is more work to be done. In Arizona and Florida, parents can use education savings accounts to combine several quality education alternatives to help their children. With an account, the state deposits public funds in a parent’s bank account for use on educational products and services. Students can combine public school classes, virtual classes, college courses and private school tuition, along with distance-learning options, to create a challenging, unique education. Families use a debit card to make purchases. For Julie Lopez, like parents all over the state, deciding how her children learn is an important responsibility. “I expected it to give me more control over what my kids knew and were exposed to, and I expected it to yield good fruit in their personalities,” Julie says. “All of those expectations have been met.”

Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and a senior fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.