This week marks the 10th annual National School Choice Week (NSCW) — a time when families, students, education reformers, and political leaders celebrate education opportunities for students and advocate for giving more families a choice over where their children learn. As with nearly everything else over the past year, this year’s NSCW looks different. It’s hard to ignore how, during the pandemic, virtual education, homeschooling, and “learning pods” have become a necessary adaptation for many families.
In previous NSCWs, education reformers have typically celebrated the expansion of school vouchers, tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and charter schools. But with the chaos that K-12 education has experienced over the last year, these options alone now seem insufficient. From here on, the trajectory of education choice will be better served if the movement expands to serve students in traditional public schools. This vision will be propelled by efforts to “unbundle” public education dollars so students can learn from a variety of different providers at once, to challenge state-standardized school day schedules, and to better accommodate learning models previously underused in both public and private schools.
The mission of school choice proponents has been splintered as new challenges have presented themselves during the pandemic. To start, it may be time to rethink school day schedules. Until now most students — whether they were at a public or private school — were learning in the same types of classroom settings with similar daily schedules. Now, the pandemic has forced schools all over the country to develop virtual learning infrastructure and operate on non-standardized daily schedules. Students are periodically checking in with teachers and working more flexibly throughout the week. Though these necessary adaptations haven’t universally benefited students, state and district leaders have nonetheless started to question why there are state seat-time requirements and rules dictating school schedules in the first place. The pre-pandemic status quo wasn’t good for every student, either.
Another new horizon for school choice advocates is unbundling public school funding. Even when public funds follow students to a school outside of their home district or to a charter school, families generally can’t make any more choices with those funds. While reformers have long supported the idea of funds following students, pandemic-related challenges have posed further questions about whether families should be able to direct segments of their public-school funds to a combination of, say, a neighboring school district, an online course provider, a transportation service, and a tutor. While education savings accounts were first proposed to accommodate this kind of “à la carte” approach to education, education reformers are now exploring whether funds for all public-school students can be divided up in this way before any one school lays claim to a student’s entire per-pupil funding amount.
By clearing policy barriers out of the way, education reformers can lay a firmer foundation for alternative learning models to flourish everywhere. Moving forward, schools may be able to combine technology and virtual instruction with in-person support, emphasize competency-based learning over uniform hours of instruction, or specialize in providing certain courses to students.
Importantly, choice advocates should push for traditional public schools to have just as much flexibility to innovate as private and charter schools do. One of the biggest problems the school choice movement has faced since it began is that better schools and new ideas too often exist outside of the traditional public school system. While this has sometimes been because school districts are politically fraught institutions not always welcoming to innovation, that could be changing. An uptick in homeschooling and virtual programs could be providing some of the pressure needed to spur reforms within district school buildings.
The pandemic shouldn’t be taken as an opportunity for choice advocates to simply criticize public schools for their failures to adapt. Instead, it’s a time to recognize that there are more ways to give all families a wider array of learning options for their children.