I have a feeling most people involved in education policy intuitively accept the conclusion that parents should be the final word on what’s best for their child. But I also believe some don’t really understand its implications. You see, if we accept as our guiding principle that final authority rests with parents, then the answer to many of the debates roiling education policy becomes patently obvious.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the debate over school choice. Should all children have one schooling option, determined by a family’s address? Or should children have multiple schooling options, determined by parents and based on what they think is best?
If our guiding principle is that final word rests with parents, then it stands to reason parents should have options for where to send their children to school — and the more options the better. In this way, the public school system supports, rather than supplants, a parent’s decision-making by offering an array of options for parents to choose from.
That’s what public charter schools offer: another option, often with a curricular concentration, such as STEM or the arts or even a classical focus.
Often misunderstood, charter schools are free, public, and open to all. Unlike public district schools, however, charter schools operate independently, with their governance coming from nonprofit boards. Charter schools are funded by taxpayers and charge no tuition to attend. Any child is eligible to enroll at a public charter school, regardless of where that child lives. A child can even cross county lines to attend a charter school. If a charter school has more prospective students than seats, then the school conducts a random lottery; many schools weight those lotteries to favor economically disadvantaged households.
Charter schools are also highly accountable. Unlike district schools, underperforming charter schools can be shut down. The charter school industry supports that accountability. If a school isn’t working, then it shouldn’t be open. In my view, this is where education officials have a major role — in ensuring each public school meets certain standards.
But education officials should not have a role in telling parents which schools their children can and cannot attend. That violates the guiding principle that parents should have the final say.
Unfortunately, some corners treat charter schools and district schools as opponents to one another in some sort of ugly competition. They’re all public schools, and I see them as complementing, not competing with, one another. They offer parents options in deciding which school environment best suits their children.
If a child is flourishing in a district school, that’s fantastic. That child should probably stay there, and other schools might want to consider replicating what’s working.
But not all children are the same. Some do better in one type of school than another, and that can be for a lot of reasons. The important thing is that parents have options.
The past decade’s worth of data shows that parents prefer a choice in their children’s schooling. In fact, the number of students attending a public charter school has more than doubled since 2013, increasing from 58,000 to 141,000.
In survey after survey, parents report that they like choices in education. Just today, the John Locke Foundation released a poll showing 59% of people support offering more charter school options in their area, compared to just 28% who oppose. What’s more, 66% would consider leaving a traditional public school in favor of a charter school.
National School Choice Week 2024, which ends Saturday, comes amid a national movement to refocus education policy on parents. That’s where the focus belongs, because the final authority on what’s best for a child rests with mom and dad.