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Want School Choice? Public Education Has It, Says New Report

“Although the current dialogue about school choice is generally focused on charter schools, vouchers, and the overall diversion of taxpayer monies to private entities, it misses a fundamental reality: Most public school districts already offer a wide range of choices to their students.” This message is at the core of a new report from the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education titled Busting the Myth of “One Size Fits All” Public Education.

At an event unveiling the report earlier this month, panelists discussed the wide variety of alternative options offered in public education. Thomas Gentzel, executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association, noted that the system has evolved over many years from one that offers limited options into one that molds to students’ diverse needs – providing a greater degree of choice, in fact, than many private schools.

Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education, provided a summary of the new report, which uses data from the federal Schools and Staffing Survey to examine the scope of choices available both across different school buildings and within school programs. Many public districts offer magnet or charter schools, for example, or permit families to select a school outside their neighborhood. Within-school options range from gifted and talented programs to dual credit courses, internships, career and technical education, distance learning, and much more.

The research uncovered findings such as these:

  • Some two thirds of students in public schools have the option of changing school buildings within their districts or neighboring districts.
  • Public schools offer a significant variety of choices and strategies to address individual students’ needs/interests.
  • Public schools are more likely than private schools to offer before- and afterschool care, enrichment programming, and other extracurricular activities.

Panelists described initiatives in their specific districts and the choices accessible to students. Terrell Davis, executive director of public affairs and special projects for the Wichita Public Schools (KS), and Craig Plank, chairman of the board of trustees for Richland School District 2 (SC), both emphasized their vision of setting students up for success. By providing students with choices to meet their interests within the context of high-quality learning, they said, schools are encouraging creativity and increasing students’ awareness of various career opportunities. Plank also mentioned centers within larger schools that provide personalized learning for students with learning difficulties as well as mentoring programs, internships, and specialized field studies for secondary students.

John Craig, associate principal at Hazen Union School in Hardwick, Vermont, said that even the rural area where he is based offers choices. Students have personalized learning plans that identify a suitable pathway led by their preferences, which are monitored and revised based on student planning and reflection. Options like these empower students to make choices based on their aspirations, interests, and abilities. Craig also noted the importance of supporting rural families in tackling particular challenges, such as transportation limitations, through connections with local organizations and other creative solutions.

Such a progressive education system requires changes in the way teachers approach instruction. Today’s teachers are organizing internships, mentoring, and project-based learning, the panelists noted. Community relationships are also important, encouraging businesses and organizations to work with schools to offer students tailored opportunities.

Panelists also addressed the importance of providing a level playing field for all students to access these opportunities. Plank emphasized raising students’ awareness and encouraging them to explore the options that are available to them.

To access the full report and its recommendations for school leaders, click here.

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Jemima Cabedo

AACTE Intern