Commentary: Why school choice transcends politics

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By Joy Smith-McCormick

Among the most important choices families must make, education commands our focus, as it is the foundation upon which high-functioning, productive citizens are developed. The education sector has been religious in its practices for centuries, but over the last 20 years more options to deliver education have emerged. Just as other sectors have responded to public demand to improve, school choice has evolved to meet families’ need for a higher-quality education.

At the core of the school choice debate is a personal choice parents must make about the educational model that works best for their children. Most parents will agree that having different options is preferable to a one-size-fits-all approach. Because children must live with the consequences of a school that is not the right fit, this decision should be a parental responsibility, not one made by a committee.

Consider the issue of school choice within the context of Article IX, Section 1 of the Florida Constitution. It states, in part, that “[t]he education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the state of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education … ”

Nothing in this mandate excludes school choice. This provision seems to support the type of flexibility that now includes school choice options as part of an overall system to ensure a high-quality education for all students. Local district magnet schools, charter schools, virtual schools, or some hybrid of all these aid in that flexibility.

Dismissing education choice is most consequential for black and brown children, who suffer from an academic achievement gap with their white counterparts and are more likely to travel the pipeline to prison rather than the pathway to college or gainful employment. That should motivate all stakeholders to explore any and all options to reverse this course.

Charter schools have been a successful option for these students. The most recent annual charter school performance report compiled by the Florida Department of Education shows that charter school students outperformed traditional school students. The data reveal a lower achievement gap for black and brown students in charter schools, and that low-income students in charter schools performed better than low-income students in district-managed schools.

In some political circles, school choice might be taboo. But most parents don’t consider partisan politics when deciding about their children’s education. Choice parents, however, are taxpayers who deserve fair, fact-based representation. Choice parents are voters. Their experience shapes their voices on the issue and should not be ignored by politicians for the sake of upholding an anti-choice platform.

As a choice parent, an education lawyer, and the legal and compliance director for a company of non-profit charter schools, I am in a committed relationship with the law and facts about choice. Conversations among some stakeholders are not well-informed, and their views sometimes are steeped in political myths.

I propose a time out on the politics to appreciate the facts and the basic premise of choice. Parents own this choice. Parents should not be vilified if they do not toe the party line when the party just might be out of step. Political dictates and aspirations will never be more important than parents’ rights to choose what is best for their children’s education. We all must consider softening political absolutes to make room for the reality of people’s experience.

I encourage a movement to better educate all stakeholders and to dispel the myths around the issue of school choice. Whatever your politics, school choice is codified and a part of our public education system.

 

Joy Smith-McCormick is legal and compliance director and general counsel for Kid’s Community College Charter Schools (KCC). KCC’s five not-for-profit, public charter school campuses serve more than 1,500 K-12 students in Hillsborough and Orange counties. As an active member of the Florida Bar, Joy serves as Education Law Committee chair and is a member of the Governmental and Public Policy Advocacy Committee. She has been practicing law for 17 years. Follow her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/joy-smith-mccormick-esq-38829880 or on Twitter @joyisspeaking.