‘Opting In’ to a Public Education System That Works

Mar 15, 2016 12:00:00 AM


Over the past year, there has been a lot of attention paid to the "opt-out" movement growing in pockets across U.S. public schools. Indeed, it’s a significant issue that deserves attention because it is likely to have serious and negative consequences for millions of low-income students, students of color, English-language learners and other students who are typically left behind in our traditional public schools. But when it comes to public schools, the real opt-out movement is happening on an even larger scale and it’s been growing for decades. According to a poll conducted in 2014, 26 percent of parents have chosen an alternative to their district school for their child (note that number is even higher—28 percent—among teachers). Enrollment outside of traditional district schools has been growing. Nearly two million students are home-schooled across the country. About five million students attend private schools. And nearly three million students attend public charter schools. All told, that’s nearly 10 million school-age kids—1 in 6—whose families have opted them out of the traditional public school system. In order to meet the demand from parents who want something different, states have created a multitude of publicly funded options. There are 39 private school programs, providing vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts for over 300,000 students. Forty-two states, plus the District of Columbia, have public charter schools (with a 43rd on the way—welcome back, Washington state!).

The Right of the Parents

The reasons for these opt-outs vary as much as the students themselves, but the common theme among them is that the families believe an alternative educational option is a better fit for their child’s particular needs. The right of parents to determine the best education option for their children has been protected for over a century. And yet today, opting out of traditional public schools is under constant and ever-escalating attack. What gives rise to this new wave of attacks on opting out of schools? The growth of the charter school movement explains a lot. In 25 cities, 1 in 5 students attends a public charter school. Nationally, charter school enrollment has grown by 600 percent in the past 15 years, with an additional 250,000 new charter school students in the 2015-2016 school year alone. As a result, the number of families opting out of traditional public schools now threatens the privilege of those who benefit from traditional public school systems the most. The entrenched system—and all of the special interests that feed off of it—can no longer rely on the guaranteed assignment of students and the revenue they bring with them.

You Should Be Concerned

The implications of opting out also vary. If you’re at all concerned with ensuring that all students, regardless of their families’ backgrounds or the zip code in which they live, deserve excellent educational opportunities, then both the support of the current "opt-out" movement regarding testing and the opposition to families opting out of traditional public schools should concern you. It’s more than a little suspect that powerful special interest forces work across the country to encourage mostly white, middle class parents to opt their students out of assessments that shine a light on achievement gaps and low student achievement overall, while fighting against working families and families of color who want to opt out of their assigned public schools in cities and into public charter schools. The growth and sustainability of opting out of standardized testing will depend on a lot of factors, including how states and districts manage the transition to new, more rigorous assessments aligned with higher standards and whether states keep moving forward with holding schools and educators accountable for student progress on those assessments. If states and districts can figure out how to create a coherent, less burdensome assessment system that clearly supports what’s happening in the classroom, then parent frustration with testing is likely to recede and the common sense inherent in accountability will be clear once again. Opting out of traditional schools, however, has moved beyond being a trend and is now a key design feature of our 21st-century public education system. Indeed, the growth of public charter schools—publicly funded, independently operated schools open to all students—has given rise to an evolution of the definition of public education generally. Forward-thinking leaders willing to embrace this evolution may be surprised to find out just how many people—parents and community and business leaders alike—are interested in opting into a renewed public education system once again.

Eric Lerum

Eric Lerum is the vice president of growth and strategy for America Succeeds, where he leads the organization’s efforts to amplify the business leader voice in support of improving public education. Eric has over a decade of experience in strategic planning, partnership development, and advising state and local policymakers regarding public education issues. Most recently Lerum led the policy efforts at StudentsFirst as the vice president of national policy, building a team of policy and legislative analysts with expertise across a broad agenda, including teacher quality, school choice and governance reform. Before StudentsFirst, Eric served as chief of staff to the deputy mayor for education for the District of Columbia, where he played a lead role in school reform efforts, including the mayoral takeover of the school system and D.C.’s successful Race to the Top application. He has also held positions as the legislative counsel to the D.C. Council’s education committee and as a policy analyst for the D.C. Board of Education. Eric is a 2003 graduate of the Washington College of Law at American University, where he developed his interests in public education and youth justice while teaching constitutional literacy to high school students.

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