School choice is more important than ever

Originally published in the Washington Examiner – February 13, 2020

The United States recently recognized National School Choice Week. Typically, tens of thousands of schools and organizations host events nationwide to celebrate the school choice movement. But with a government in transition, COVID-19 still reaching new highs in many states, and many schools still operating virtually, the occasion (and the topic of our country’s many struggling students) was buried under other headlines.

Students don’t all learn the same way. And students who thrived in their neighborhood public schools last year might be struggling with their schooling today. With school choice, students attend the learning environment that best fits their needs — whether that’s a public school, private school, charter school, online school, or home schooling. When the pandemic threw traditional schooling into chaos, it showed that the ability to pursue flexible, personalized learning options is more important than ever.

In the rush to get back to in-person learning this fall, many schools neglected to build distance-learning platforms that facilitated a strong educational experience for students in the long term. As a result, students are facing significantly high failure rates, parent-teacher relationships are strained, and frustrated parents and students are turning to tutors to supplement online learning.

Many of our country’s leaders have faced criticism for sending their children to private schools, which had the small class sizes and resources to reopen while public schools remained online, lacking the resources to teach effectively. Most people don’t have the financial resources to pay for private schooling.

In times like these, students who have the option of school choice are able to turn to online public schooling — schools that have been created specifically for virtual education and have already spent years testing and improving their educational systems.

Kenai, a second grader, enrolled in the Cyber Academy of South Carolina this year because his mother and sister both have heart conditions, putting them at a higher risk for COVID-19. Now, his mother says he is flourishing, excited for the first time to attend school in the mornings. Vinnie, a fourth grader at the Highpoint Virtual Academy of Michigan, has congenital myopathy, a neuromuscular disability similar to cerebral palsy. Vinnie was denied an individualized educational plan at his previous school, but he now has one, along with many other accommodations that fit his learning needs. Other children choose virtual academies because of bullying, public school overcrowding, extracurricular demands such as competitive athletics, and more.

Giving families the choice to enroll children in schools built specifically for online learning is critical. The reality for hardworking educators across the country is that you can’t copy and paste what they do in brick-and-mortar classrooms into online environments. They have to account for the different needs of each student and how that might change in the new setting. This is especially true for students with specialized needs who require teachers and support staff trained in virtual education.

Effective online instruction requires a shift away from traditional teaching practices to a more customized approach. Virtual academies, such as Kenai’s and Vinnie’s, use various instructional methods, including project-based learning, group projects, discussions, and real-world experiences, to help students succeed in learning. Learning experiences are more personalized, and the schools are able to leverage technology and data to track student progress and adapt the experience as needed.

While recent vaccine news seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, distributing the vaccine to parents, educators, and children will take time. And education may never fully return to the way it was before. That’s why it is important to make school choice available to every student of every age now, as our country walks the fine line between “before COVID-19” and “after COVID-19.”

Kevin P. Chavous, a former member of the Council of the District of Columbia, is an attorney, author, education reform activist, and president of academic policy and external affairs at Stride.

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