Republicans should rally around school choice

Republicans gathering this week in Moscow should reaffirm their support for school choice. Idaho’s families and children have benefited from the expansion of school options, they like them, and they want more of them.Because of Republican leadership in the Legislature, in the governor’s office and in the State Department of Education over the last two decades, family choices today encompass not only decisions by parents to live in a certain neighborhood because of the quality of public schools, but private schools, public charter schools, home schooling, magnet schools, alternative schools and on-line learning through both virtual schools and hybrid models blending classroom and online instruction.

The numbers tell the tale. More than 19,500 children attended one of the state’s charter schools in 2013-14 (6.5 percent of all K-12 Idaho students). The number of students in Idaho charters have more than doubled since 2006-07. Despite this growth, the state’s top charter schools still have significant waiting lists. This has been evidenced in recent weeks by the number of charters that have had to hold lotteries for the 2014-15 year. Nothing depresses a charter school leader more than telling a family that the lottery for their school didn’t bounce their way.

But school choice is far more than charter schools. An increasing number of school districts across the state are taking a lesson from the charter sector and competing by creating new school choices of their own. Meridian Joint School District No. 2, for example, offers schools designed around unique instructional approaches, areas of emphasis, student population, and/or school calendar. Meridian school choices include arts-based schools, literacy focused schools, STEM academies, a culinary arts program, and a high school that provides the rigorous International Baccalaureate Program among other options. A number of public school districts offer open-enrollment opportunities for their students.

One of the most innovative charter schools in the state is ARTEC (Advanced Regional Technical Education Coalition), which was founded by a coalition of rural school districts, business leaders and philanthropic leaders in 1999. ARTEC is still going strong 15 years later and works across five school districts to offer nine professional programs ranging from automotive technology, to cabinetmaking to health professions to information communication technology.

There are other powerful examples of charters and school districts working together to better serve their students. In Salmon, the local school board has recently hired one of the founders of the high-performing Upper Carmen Charter School to lead its district in coming years. Top talent in Idaho education is increasingly agnostic about whether they work for a charter school or a district school. They simply want to work in schools that make a difference in the lives of students. We are sure to see more and more educators who make a career working across different school sectors. Choice has become a fact of life for educators, parents and students alike.

Even more, school districts and charter schools are developing bundled education opportunities for their students. This means offering students an assortment of services and courses through on-line providers like Idaho Digital Learning Academy and the Kahn Academy. The P-Tech Network is working to use blended learning opportunities to expand career tech opportunities to every interested youngster in the state.

Increasingly, not only are families and students able to choose the schools that work best for them, but are accessing individual courses and programs within and beyond the schools that help all students maximize their educational potential. It also provides new pathways for increased numbers of students to leave high school ready for college or well-paying jobs.

School choice is a winner for Republicans, but more importantly it is a winner for Idaho’s students and families. As debates around education’s contentious issues (the Common Core, school funding, career ladders, etc.) swirl around the conversations in Moscow it is important to reconnect to first principles. School choice works.

 

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