Three tough truths about education, school choice

The past year has brought turmoil and turbulence to people in New Mexico and the world over. Sadly, children facing obstacles to their education have become one of the largest casualties of coronavirus-related shutdowns.

This National School Choice Week, Jan. 24-30, I’d like to open a conversation about three tough truths that the COVID-19 crisis revealed to us – and how school choice can help alleviate some of the problems families continue to face.

First, the coronavirus and its shutdowns have revealed, and in many cases worsened, inequities in the current school system. Children in households of modest means often suffered the most when schools shuttered last spring, from difficulties accessing federally-funded meals to a lack of reliable internet connections for online learning.

School choice exists in large part to level those inequities, so that lower-income families can receive the same quality education available to wealthier households. Choice can offer alternatives to online learning – for instance, in-person or hybrid instruction in areas where public schools remain closed. Smaller schools of choice are often able to provide a more personalized learning experience for kids, even when school is online. The growth of learning pods and microschools during the pandemic also shows parents’ desire for more personalized, flexible options rather than a one-size-fits-all experience.

A second truth the coronavirus drove home is that remote learning can be isolating. At some point during the pandemic, most parents and children have found constant Zoom calls and lectures isolating and exhausting. While some may thrive on full-time online learning, most thrive on live engagement with their teachers and peers.

When families have choices for the way they engage with education, that provides opportunities for higher levels of engagement. Providing parents with greater choices for their children also encourages schools to curate best practices for instructional strategies, provide social emotional learning support, and personalize educational methods to individual student needs.

Finally, the coronavirus serves as a reminder that, in a crisis, priority must be made for vulnerable students to have choices, including pathways to in-person education. Younger students, special education students, and English language learners especially need these options. In areas where in-person learning is simply not an option, schools need to find the highest quality practices for online teaching and leverage the best programming for vulnerable students.

Giving parents various options via school choice will help to ensure the populations most at risk will not fall through the cracks. School choice recognizes that learning doesn’t start and stop at the classroom door; families need support in areas like child care, food service and health services to ensure their students receive a quality education.

From Jan. 24 through 30, thousands of students and organizations like mine will celebrate National School Choice Week. During this time, we shine a spotlight on all quality educational options, including traditional public schools, magnet programs, public charter schools, private schools, and home and online learning options.

Having attended School Choice Week functions for many years, I can attest to the spirit of optimism, hope, and joy in those who participate. Often, school choice lights a spark of curiosity, wonder and love of learning that remains with a child their entire life.

We have seen so much sadness over the past year that we could all use some warmth and good news. For millions of Americans, school choice provided that good news well before the coronavirus – and school choice can help students recover learning lost to the coronavirus. This week, let’s remember the ways that school choice can help New Mexico students recover from this tumultuous year, and use choice to put some much-needed good news back into our lives.

Kelly Callahan is a former charter school principal.

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