Terry Ryan: School choices expand opportunities for Idaho children


February 2, 2014 

School choice has become a given for an increasing number of Idaho families and children. This is a good thing. It means families in the Gem State have the freedom to choose the best educational environments and options for their children. Idahoans value individual freedoms, including the freedom to choose a school for their children. Parents who make a proactive decision around their kids’ schooling have more skin in the game than those who don’t understand they have options and simply take what they get.

In a little more than two decades, school choice has evolved from being primarily between two options — traditional public school or private school — to many options. Family choices today encompass not only decisions by parents to live in a certain neighborhood because of the quality of the public schools, but private schools, public charter schools, home schooling, magnet schools, alternative schools and on-line learning through both virtual schools and hybrid models blending classroom and online instruction.

According to the U.S. census, there are 437,478 children in Idaho between the ages of 5 and 18. Of these, 287,247 are enrolled in a district school, while 19,534 students attend one of the state’s public charter schools. Another 35,768 are enrolled in private schools or are being home-schooled.

Further, school districts are expanding significantly the choices and opportunities they make available to their students and families. Meridian School District, for example, offers schools designed around unique instructional approaches, areas of emphasis, student population, and/or school calendar.

Meridian school choices include arts-based schools, literacy focused schools, STEM academies and a high school that provides the rigorous International Baccalaureate Program, among other options. A number of public school districts offer open-enrollment opportunities for their students.

Even more, some school districts and charter schools are developing bundled education opportunities for their students. This means offering students an assortment of services and courses through online providers, or higher education institutions or career tech providers.

Increasingly, not only are families and students able to choose the schools that work best for them, but are accessing individual courses and programs within and beyond the schools that work best for them. Customization of learning is a growing component of school choice and offers significant opportunities to help all students maximize their educational potential. It also provides new pathways for increased numbers of students to leave high school ready for college or well-paying jobs.

But for school choice to maximize student achievement it needs to be matched by smart accountability for performance.

As Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev regarding nuclear arms reduction efforts, “Trust, but verify.” This maxim is as appropriate for education — and educators — as for arms control.

Everyone does better work (and behaves better) when someone is looking over their shoulder. Another way of saying it is that every firm needs an independent auditor and everyone needs to know that praise and reward come with results and that embarrassment and intervention come with failure. Quality school choices benefit children and families, but underperformers hurt children and slow the development of better choices.

National School Choice Week celebrates the creation and advancement of school choice in Idaho and across America. It spotlights the excitement, and the importance of, quality education options and choices for children and families.

This is a significant and evolving development in public education and done well will improve education for Idaho’s children.

Terry Ryan is president of Idaho Charter School Network.

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