Leave aside the political and philosophical arguments about “school choice” for a moment. Those vigorous debates are worth having, and they will likely occur during the presidential election contest later this year. For now, though, let’s examine the practical side of school choice.
Can we agree that most parents want the best for their children? That wish surely extends to the quality of their education, given the impact it will have on them throughout their adult lives. It stands to reason, then, that most parents would love to be able to ensure their kids attend an excellent school.
Recent data gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics show a clear majority of American parents do, in fact, exercise a choice of schools, whether by seizing on options gradually becoming more available within government-run systems, paying for private school (sometimes with scholarship aid), or venturing into homeschooling.
About one-fifth of choosers exercise what is called “real-estate choice” by buying a home near a known excellent school. Obviously, not all people have the means to do that.
The most critical times for decision-making usually are when a child is about to start formal schooling, a family is moving to a new home, or parents decide they need to switch schools for a child’s well-being — academic or emotional. With bullying and assault rampant, safety is becoming a huge concern for many families, which is why Child Safety Accounts could be a lifeline for many children.
Even when parents are highly motivated to place their children in the best possible learning environment, identifying all available options and checking them out can be a daunting task. That is true whether options are plentiful or limited in any particular community.
Why hasn’t someone written a book to help families find their own pathways to educational choice?
Well, don’t worry; now someone has. That book is The School Choice Roadmap (Beaufort Books, 2020), written by Andrew Campanella, president of the highly successful National School Choice Week (NSCW), which has been held the last week of January for the past decade. In the book and in NSCW, Campanella looks for good to celebrate and options for parents in all kinds of schools within both the public and private sectors.
“School choice is not about making one big choice for all kids everywhere,” Campanella writes in Roadmap. “It does not mean picking one type of school that should, or will, work perfectly for every child. Instead, school choice is personal. It means millions of individual parents, in thousands of unique communities, make individual choices for individual children.”
Campanella gives an informative rundown on basics such as enrollment opportunities, policies, costs, and transportation within traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, online public schools, private schools, and homeschooling. From knowledge gained from coordinating NSCW (which topped 50,000 celebrations of school choices this year), he provides helpful vignettes of various kinds of schools that stand out.
The meatiest section of Roadmap is “Seven Steps to Choosing a School or Learning Environment for Your Child.” Throughout, he stresses that parents are the real experts when deciding what’s best for a child. As they seek to put their intentions into practice, many will benefit from Campanella’s detailed suggestions (complete with worksheets) for doing the research and putting personal goals into action. Visiting schools is essential, and he has good advice on how to do that.
Early in the book, Campanella notes the “tough reality” that because of differing state policies and community differences, not all parents will have access to the full range of school-choice options. When they dig deeper, though, they may find more alternatives than they knew existed, such as intra- or inter-district open enrollment or home-school cooperatives.
Of course, parents and other citizens can also lobby lawmakers and school boards for expanded educational choice. Sticking to his no-politics vow, Campanella doesn’t go there. And that’s okay. He has written an excellent guide to what school choice is out there today. It is a lot more than existed in 1980 and should continue to expand as parents and students explore what’s possible and pursue their dreams.
Robert Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.