National School Choice Week (NSCW) is a slice in time for parents, educators, lawmakers, philanthropists, employers, students, and others to acknowledge the important role diverse learning ecosystems play in American education. Founded with the support of the Gleason Family Foundation in 2010, NSCW has blossomed into more than 33,000 local celebrations where students in 50 states will be featured January 25–29, 2021.
School choice takes many forms in the United States. For instance, 4,340 magnet schools educate more than 3.5 million students—which accounts for 1 out of every 15 students enrolled in public schools. There are 3.3 million students enrolled in approximately 7,500 charter schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia. A unique mix of voluntary and mandatory open enrollment programs in 47 states and the District of Columbia also expands options for students. In the non-public school sector, 26 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico operate 55 publicly funded scholarship programs for approximately 500,000 students. This array of options, as well as polling data showing that over 60 percent of Americans support public and private choice programs, indicates that it is worthwhile to find time to celebrate them.
Even before many of these public and private school choice programs were in operation, homeschooling provided a pathway for families to educate their children. Today, about 2.3 million students are homeschooled throughout the United States, although this number may grow as parents are rethinking the concept of schooling in a COVID-19 world. Research about participants in public and private choice programs identifies positive outcomes regarding state and national achievement examinations, high school and college matriculation and completion rates, and the effects of private choice on public school students.
As we celebrate the great things occurring in choice programs, we also should recognize that not all of them provide a quality education for students and educators, as I saw when I worked providing technical service to existing programs. The caliber of education available certainly affects how families and the general public view choice programs. Deficiencies exist, but so do possibilities. This week also provides an opportunity to note areas where the school choice sector has room for self-reflection, growth, and reform.
And as we celebrate NSCW, let us remember that the complexities of why families choose a particular learning environment are broader than a school building or virtual learning device. Families choose schools for other reasons, as research shows. For example, Drs. James Davison Hunter and Ryan Olson at the University of Virginia coedited a 2018 book titled The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation. It is the first in-depth investigation into how students in 10 types of American schools have their character and citizenship habits shaped in 10 different high school ecosystems, seven of which are non-public settings such as Catholic, Jewish, home, Muslim, and STEM schools. The authors find schools play an important role in the civic and moral formation of young people, and that this is why many families select a particular school over other options.
It is also worth noting that parents’ motivations for choosing schools include factors other than test scores alone, as studies have shown.
In closing, those advocating for meaningful opportunities for all families during NSCW would do well to make a moral case for school choice, pointing to the diversity of learning options as fundamental importance to our national creed.
Gerard Robinson is a Fellow of Practice at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and co-editor of Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice.