Public education at a crossroads? Surge in schooling options tests US model.

This year, many Republican-led States acted to give parents funding to help them attend educational alternatives to traditional public schools.

Programs created by legislators range from education savings accounts in Kentucky and West Virginia, to an expanded tax-credit scholarship program in Nevada. State funds in New Hampshire are used to create learning pods, as well as for tutoring and tuition costs for private schools.

Why This

Was Written

Will a decrease in support for local schools affect the democratic principle that public education is essential for strong citizens? New Hampshire, which adopted two new school-choice programs in 2021, looks for answers.

At an era when culture wars have erupted over teaching systemic racism and public health measures, advocates for school choice policy suggest that it can lower tensions. This could be done by giving families the freedom to choose schools that reflect their beliefs.

Supporters of more options are declaring 2021 the “year of educational choice,” while some public school backers warn of fracturing support for the role public education plays in cultivating a strong democracy. Most Americans agree that an educated populace is essential for America’s future success. However, many Americans are split on the best way to accomplish that goal. Joseph Waddington from the University of Kentucky says that while most Americans have one common view, they don’t all share the same views.

” “It’s about how we do it,” he said.

Manchester, N.H .

Caroline Simmonds spotted a Facebook advertisement for learning pods free in New Hampshire. Two-year-old mother of two signed up for more information.

“The pandemic was what pushed me to the brink,” Ms. Simmonds said after attending an information session on learning pods. “I’ve never been a big fan of the public schools, but once COVID hit, I was like, something has to be done.”

Ms. Simmonds, who wants her children to have smaller classes and the option not to wear masks, stuck with public school in Manchester last year. She is now considering withdrawing her children from the public school in Manchester to allow them to attend new, tuition-free learning programs sponsored by state.

Why This

Was Written

Will a decrease in support for local schools affect the democratic principle that public education is essential for strong citizens? New Hampshire, which adopted two new school-choice programs in 2021, looks for answers.

A number of Republican-led States acted in this year’s election to grant parents such as Ms. Simmonds state funding to support educational alternatives to traditional public schools. School choice advocates are declaring 2021 the “year of educational choice,” while some public school backers warn of fracturing support for the role public education plays in cultivating a strong democracy. Most Americans agree that an educated population is essential for America’s future success. However, many Americans are split on the best way to accomplish that goal. Joseph Waddington, an assistant professor of education at University of Kentucky, said that while most Americans have an overarching view that an educated populace is important, they differ in how that can be achieved. “It is a matter of how we achieve that. And that’s where factions individualism and collectivism enter into play. They are some of many of today’s most prevalent conversation around education,” he said.

In 2021, state legislators created seven new school choice programs in seven states, and expanded 21 existing programs in 14 states, according to EdChoice, a school choice advocacy organization. The programs include education savings accounts for Kentucky and West Virginia as well as an expanded tax credit scholarship program for Nevada.

“Not just were there more bills that we are used to seeing, but also the type of programs and the expansiveness of these programs is what made this year stand out,” said Michael McShane from EdChoice, who directs national research.

For supporters of school choice, the COVID-19 disruption proved that more alternatives are needed in public education. They cite parent demand, as evidenced by the 3% drop in public school enrollment between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, and the 7% increase in charter school enrollment and doubling of the home-schooling rates during that same time. They predict that there will be a continued demand for educational options.

Opponents warn that the wave of legislation is an effort to take advantage of a health crisis to push an agenda that will weaken funding for public education and undermine the American promise to provide all students with a quality education.

“Public Education is the only institution in America that promises equal treatment to all students,” states Derek W. Black (author of Schoolhouse Burning: The Assault on American Democracy). Without strong public schools, Americans are at risk of falling in education and more polarization.

” This nation was built on the belief in educated citizens. Professor Black states that it was clear, as it is today, that many of us, if we were forced to go to school on our own, either couldn’t or wouldn’t be able afford it.”

New Hampshire’s choice options

Struggles over public education were already flaring before the pandemic in ideologically divided New Hampshire, a state where Democratic candidates have won the electoral votes in the past five presidential elections, yet Republicans currently control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. Criticism has been levelled at the state’s education chief for not having any education experience and his decision to home school his seven children.

Nationally, Republican lawmakers are more likely to vote for school choice policies. A recent analysis by researchers for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) of a sampling of state school choice laws passed between 1990 and 2021 showed choice programs were overwhelmingly passed with votes by Republican lawmakers.

Republican leaders in New Hampshire developed two new school choice programs this year. In April, the state’s education commissioner used federal COVID-19 relief funds to sign a $6 million contract with Prenda, a private microschool company, to run K-8 learning pods for small groups of students to address pandemic learning losses. In June, state legislators created Education Freedom Accounts, an education savings account program that allows qualifying families to receive state funds for use on private school tuition, tutoring, or home-schooling costs.

About 100 students are signed up for community learning pods in New Hampshire through Prenda as of late September, according to company CEO Kelly Smith, and six public school districts have signed on to create school district pods. Due to difficulties in finding staff and space, none of the pods have been formed.

As of Oct. 1, more than 1,500 applications for Education Freedom Accounts have been completed and sent to the state’s Department of Education, according to Kate Baker Demers, executive director of the New Hampshire Children’s Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit scholarship organization currently administering the program. Allison Dyer from Nashua was attracted to the education savings account. Her daughter, who attended Nashua public schools for two years, then enrolled at a Roman Catholic school, where she doesn’t have to wear a mask. Although she had budgeted for tuition at private schools, rising gas and food costs made it difficult to pay. The single mother applied for the Education Freedom Account, and she hopes to be granted funding in November.

Sending any state funding to private options worries Megan Tuttle, president of NEA-NH, the state’s largest teachers union, noting that public schools serve about 90% of New Hampshire students and pointing to studies showing that New Hampshire ranks highly on educational outcomes.

“When the public schools were established, it was a matter of “we know that we are paying for this as public because we want to see a positive future.” She criticizes using taxpayer money for private schools, which she doesn’t think have the same level of “accountability or transparency.”

Professor Waddington, who researches the impact of school choice programs, says research on outcomes is mixed with some successes and failures. Research consistently points out poor outcomes from virtual charter schools, and he wonders about the recent efforts in West Virginia to increase that option.

“[It] raises the question of whether legislators are focused on quality education or whether they feel empowered and embrace this concept. Could more options help to quell the debate?

At a time when the pandemic has sparked culture wars over public health measures and teaching about systemic racism, some advocates suggest that school choice policies can help lower tensions by allowing families to select schools that align with their values.

” What it does is that it lowers stakes in those debates, and lowers temperatures. “Either you get what your want from the public money or you don’t,” Neal McCluskey (director of the Center for Educational Freedom of the libertarian Cato Institute) says.

Robert Pondiscio is an advocate of school choice. He’s also a senior fellow at AEI (a right-of center think tank) and expresses concern that choice policies could be used to lower the risk of culture wars.

“I am troubled that a limited version of choice is not focused on conflict avoidance. “To enhance the richness and quality of education, the argument for choice [should be],” states Mr. Pondiscio.

Instead of looking at school choice only as an option for parents to make, U.S. policymakers need to look at educational pluralism. Other observers highlight innovations in public schools such as magnet schools and alternative schools that merit more attention.

Mr. McShane of EdChoice says “the stars aligned” this year and he doesn’t expect as many school choice bills to pass state legislatures in 2022. McShane hopes more families will join the political process, which will allow programs to grow and expand.

Parents want a say

Back in New Hampshire, Ms. Dyer explains that she’s withdrawing her child from public schools in part because she feels the school board isn’t involving parents enough with decisions.

This is a complaint Keri Rodrigues from Massachusetts says she hears frequently. The National Parents Union is a parent advocacy group that represents parents who are traditionally marginalized in the education field, such as foster parents and parents with incarcerated children. This group received funding from Walton Family Foundation. They have also supported school choice initiatives.

Ms. Rodrigues believes that the status quo education system isn’t sustainable for all families. She also says she thinks parents will demand more options, whether it be public school innovation or another school model.

“Whether we like it or not, parents are participating in school boards. She says that parents are participating in school boards by raising their voices online and organizing offline. They have more to lose. They plan to keep being engaged going forward.”

Ms. Simmonds, who was listening to Prenda’s pitch in a Panera Bread café in Manchester, believes a pod would be a great fit for her kids. Ms. Simmonds is taking the first steps towards enrolling but she will be closely watching for any changes.

” If I sign up, I will take it one year at a while and ensure that they are learning. It’s not just fun.” she said. “This is a bit like unschooling, and I love it. But I also recognize the advantages of structured learning.”

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