Choice was created for the choice-less

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By Reggie Barbour

I love how the subject of school choice has made it out of the realms of only being discussed within the education reform movement. For a long time, only those who were actually in the ed reform sector knew or talked about reform efforts. I believe a large part of the reason our subject matter has grown is because the current political climate. The President and the U.S. Secretary of Education has not only placed ed reform on their personal platforms, but have created ways for all of us to engage in the conversations – even for the first time.

In the years that I have been a part of this movement, both from afar and inside, I have come to realize one critical thing – “Choice was created for the choice-less.” All parents want what’s best for their children. Parents with the means to secure high-quality educations for their children will do so. They will pay tuition. Hire a tutor. Move to a neighborhood where traditional public school options are high. Or they will figure out a way to home school or create an online learning experience for their children – if that is the best option for their child to learn.

Families without those means, low-income and under-resourced families, are often faced with little to no choice. Not because private schools won’t accept them, but because they can’t afford the tuition. Or maybe getting to the high-performing school will present a transportation issue for some families. Or perhaps there’s a social pressure of going to a school where the student may not know anyone else. Typically, families who fall into this category are left with very little choice.

I believe that’s why choice was created. You’ve heard me say this before – living in D.C., we are afforded a number of choices from charter schools, to high-performing traditional public schools, to opportunity scholarships. We have Jesuit schools specifically for boys from low-income families where they receive a free high-quality education. We have an array of home school options including multicultural co-ops. We have Montessori, online schools, character-building schools, vocational schools. We are surrounded by choice.

I remember a time when traditional public education for low-income and working-class families was the ONLY choice in this area. Your choice was “are you going to go to your neighborhood school or be different and go to another school?” That’s it. Before the opportunity scholarship, very few of us were able to leave our low-income communities and go to a tuition-based school. It just wasn’t happening.

Then arrives choice. First charter schools then the opportunity scholarship program. And it grew from there. Some say competition begets competition. So, because of the increase of choice, those underperforming traditional public schools felt the pressure to step up to the plate and do something about their lack of high test scores and graduation rates. They needed to compete. And they have been.

However, there are plenty of cities in this country that are left without choice. Low-income parents must be creative in ensuring their children perform at high levels even when attending low-performing schools. They must advocate for new policies that put children first to either fix failing schools or give them options for a better education systems and thus, better educational outcomes. When choice does not exist, it presents a seemingly insurmountable problem for some students to receive a high-quality education.

Bottom line is – educational choice options were made for those families who didn’t have various options available to them. Regardless if you are for against one or all of them, choice allows all of us to make the best decisions for our children’s education. That’s not right or wrong. It’s just choice.