School options opening up for parents

August 16, 2005|By Alison Lake

IT WAS ONCE unfashionable, even unpatriotic, to criticize one's local public school, and for years mainstream media were reluctant to reveal a systemic decline of public education. For better or worse, No Child Left Behind changed all that. Suddenly, schools became accountable and their shortcomings were made public. That was four years ago.

Keeping in mind test scores, discipline problems, rising spending, stagnant graduation rates and schools that fail to teach children the "basics," parents face a sometimes frightening prospect of enrolling their children in public school today.

Amid these fears, putting one's child on the school bus may appear to be the only option. Yet children entering, or already in, a public school system that is lacking in one or more areas have other, and often better, options. A 2005 Heritage Foundation report found "school choice is in high demand and growing," with voucher programs in 11 states, charter or magnet schools in most states and home schooling in all 50.

Opinions vary widely on what constitutes a high quality education, which is why competition and choice should characterize K-12 education today. Bureaucracy, substandard teacher certification and the stranglehold of teachers' unions do not make for a rich and diverse educational environment. Given greater freedom, educators, experts and parents can educate America's children with success and add to the ranks of those public schools that get it right.

Meanwhile, families work multiple jobs to ensure residence in a successful school district. The geographically fortunate don't have to worry. The rest are left to work with the status quo or try to discover alternatives for their children. When the child's school does not deliver the necessary core education, filling in the gaps at home and with outside study becomes a daunting responsibility.

Involvement at school as a volunteer or board member is a wise move, but a parent cannot expect to have much influence in a public school district.

Private schools are, of course, a viable alternative. Depending on income and background, reduced tuition and scholarships make some schools more available to children. Families living in some states are fortunate enough to have such options as tax credits or vouchers to send their children to private schools of choice or charter schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded but can design their own programs and curriculum with the help of parents and are free to set their own policies and hire qualified teachers, depending on their state's law. A 2005 Manhattan Institute study found that, on average, charter school students are about 5 percent more likely to be proficient in reading and 3 percent more likely to be proficient in math than students in regular public schools.

Home schooling, formerly an eccentric choice, is gaining popularity and acclaim. Countless private companies, independent schools and academies provide readymade curricula for parents to implement at home. Parents who don't feel qualified to teach certain subjects or the entire curriculum may be able to join or create a community network that also includes activities to fulfill the important socialization need.

Parents needn't narrow their choices just to the local public school system. With each passing year, states can enact more flexible charter laws, vouchers and education tax credits can become available in more cities and allow students to attend private schools and resources for home schooling and charter schools will improve and continue to diversify.

In the meantime, the public school system shouldn't make all the decisions about our children's learning. Parental initiative and voice are needed.

Alison Lake is managing editor at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a former teacher.

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