America’s economic development demands school choice for all children

Originally published in The Washington Examiner – January 31, 2020

For nearly as long as we have had public schools, we have had school choice. Why? Because communities with greater financial resources were able to invest more in their schools, and over time, those schools attracted more families of means, driving a self-sustaining cycle of high-performing schools and increased property values.

Unfortunately, this model left many children behind, particularly in our largest cities.

This inequitable model has sparked the modern school choice movement, founded on the belief that all children, regardless of their parents’ income, their zip code or their skin color, should be given the same chance to pursue a world-class education.

In many ways, this movement has succeeded. Charter schools and networks are thriving in many areas of the country. The backlash they sometimes face from other vested interests is as clear a sign of their success as any other assessment of their work.

Yet as this movement matures, we must think even more broadly about school choice, especially in the context of economic development. School choice isn’t it just an escape hatch from a struggling public school system. If we define economic development as improving the quality of life of a nation, region or local community, then a quality education for all citizens provided by school choice is a necessary requirement for future economic health.

In other words, school choice is about providing an opportunity that is not just better for our students and for our country, but also different in kind.

There are already models for this in the traditional public school system. Magnet schools offer students with particular interests the opportunity to focus on the arts or STEM at an early age. Some of the best high schools in this country are just these types of schools.

The problem is that the limited number of magnet schools available today don’t provide a sufficient solution. Many districts don’t have the resources or the scale to support them. A one-high-school town is just that. And even in the areas where they are available, these schools are often extremely difficult to get into, leaving many student who could benefit from their specialized programming out in the cold.

There’s a deeper challenge too, which is that magnet programs are aimed at the best-of-the-best — the students who aced algebra in seventh grade or are on their way to Juilliard after graduation. It’s great that these opportunities exist for those children, but what about all the others?

One thing we have found the past few years is that many parents and students are rejecting the assumptions of previous decades that a basic academic track leading right into a two- or four-year college degree program is the best thing for all students. Today, the cost of college is much too high, and so many of today’s high-schoolers have seen friends or family members graduate with unsustainable debt into jobs that don’t really interest them or don’t even require the degree they worked so hard to attain.

These families also want school choice, but not just among better or worse schools that all otherwise look just about the same. That’s why they’re turning to public charter schools that have increased flexibility to offer multiple potential career paths through an instructional approach called Career Readiness Education.

CRE introduces students to a variety of industries and allows them to explore fields like technology, health sciences, or whatever path interests them and might fit in with their postgraduation plans. It then places them to study alongside students who have the same interests and sets them on a journey to receive the training, certifications, or degrees they’ll need to pursue the career they want.

It does that through a reimagined system of electives, sometimes designed or led by former industry professionals. The best CRE programs also offer opportunities for work-based learning through internships and apprenticeship programs. These allow students to actually see and feel what it’s like to work in their industry of interest, at a time when switching gears won’t significantly cost them in terms of academic readiness. Today, most students don’t get this chance until their junior or senior year of college, at which point they either ride it out or change majors, signing on to extra years of school that they and their parents may not have budgeted for.

In our future conversations about school choice, we need to remember this. We need to remember that school choice isn’t just about protecting charter schools. It’s about protecting a parent’s right to send their child to a school they feel is physically or mentally safer, higher performing, or tailored to their unique needs and career interests.

We need to preserve and protect school choice. Our children’s futures depend on it. And our country’s future economic prosperity depends on it.

Dr. Shaun McAlmont is the president of career readiness education at K12, Inc.

To learn more about K12 Inc., visit https://www.k12.com/

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