Originally published in Real Clear Education – January 23, 2018
The most energetic celebrations this new year may prove not to have been those that occurred in frigid Times Square at the ball-drop countdown, but those in thousands of warm schoolhouses across the country where children are celebrating National School Choice Week (NSCW), which began on January 21.
They will be performing their moves to NSCW’s new official dance, choreographed to Meghan Trainor’s “Better When I’m Dancin.’” And if their past renditions of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” are prelude, their performances will be electric. They will be waving the national event’s signature yellow scarves as part of their dancing, and their smiles will light up both indoor and outdoor stages, some of which will be located at statehouse rallies.
Most parents and teachers probably would attest that you cannot command young faces to exhibit happiness. Whether their exuberance is all about achieving a choice of school or simply the joy of dancing will be in the eyes of beholders. Either way, the message that comes through is one of pride in school and the value of art, music, and physical education.
There are some adult grouches, notably from the political Left, who don’t like all the scarves waving and dancing — or anything at all about the week, for that matter. In a post on its website, People for the American Way (PFAW) beseeches folks not to be “blinded by the bright yellow scarves.” It decries NSCW as a “massive public-relations campaign” funded by right-wing groups to advance an agenda of private school choice.
Well, NSCW is most certainly “public relations” in the sense that putting your best foot forward is a part of this special week, but there is nothing wrong with presenting your cause (or your organization or company) to the public in a positive but non-deceptive way. Public relations is not synonymous with propaganda.
It is noteworthy and commendable that NSCW takes an inclusive approach by welcoming supporters of all kinds of K12 options to its celebrations, including supporters of traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online academies and homeschooling. It does not use the week to lobby for privatization or any particular school choice approach.
Still, critics challenge school choice on the grounds that it drains resources from traditional public schools. NSCW President Andrew Campanella had this response in an interview with RealClearEducation during last year’s school-choice week. “Anyone who is talking about school choice and isn’t counting traditional public schools as a vital choice that parents can make for their kids, is counting out public education, and I think that’s a mistake. So, I don’t know how school choice can hurt traditional public schools when they are an important component of school choice.”
Many advocates of private choice (this writer included) would argue that open enrollment within a government-controlled system is typically a weak form of school choice. While NSCW doesn’t disparage inter- or intra-district transfers or any other effort to expand choice, independent organizers of the week’s events are free to debate that issue or any other.
Speaking of NSCW events, here is a factoid sure to deepen the frowns on PFAW faces: In 2016, when PFAW vented its annoyance with happy kids waving scarves, there were 16,000 choice-week events. This month, more than 32,000 will be held — a doubling in just two years. And back in 2011, only eight years ago, National School Choice week launched with 150 events.
Beginning January 21, participants will hear countless testimonials regarding the difference a free choice of school has made in the lives of students and their families. In advance, Brandon Sosa made a compelling case in a letter to the Arizona Daily Sun, noting he endorses NSCW because enrolling in an online school at age 8 “had a profound impact on [his] life.”
“I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum as a toddler, making learning a challenge,” Sosa explained. “I endured severe bullying at a traditional school. My teachers could not provide me with the attention I needed.”
But being able to exercise choice and choose a school that fit his needs changed everything. “After enrolling at Arizona Virtual Academy (AZVA), my perspective on school was transformed,” Sosa added. “The personalized learning model allowed me to process information at a slower pace. Teachers were supportive and the culture was bully-free.”
Sosa entered the University of Arizona with top-tier admission scores, and he now aspires to become a doctor in order to help other children with special needs.
As an online, tuition-free public school, AZVA proves that innovative thinking about choice is possible, though not commonplace, within the governmental system.
To learn more about Arizona Virtual Academy, visit http://azva.k12.com.