School choice surges in Washington state and beyond

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Liv Finne

School choice is the term for giving families the ability to choose the school that is the best fit for their child. Families with economic means already enjoy school choice. They can afford private school tuition or homes in districts with good schools. Other families must accept the public school they have been assigned by zip code, even if the school is overcrowded, unsafe, or failing at the task of educating children. School choice programs give families various options and tools so they can direct the education of their children.

School choice offers families a full menu of options, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, online education, and private schools. Public charter schools are the fastest-growing school choice program in the country. In only 10 years the number of charter school students has nearly tripled, to 3.1 million students. These students attend over 6,900 public charter schools across the country, while another 1 million students sit on charter school waitlists.

Washington state became the 42nd state in the nation to offer parents the option of enrolling their children in a public charter school. In the fall of 2015, eight public charter schools opened in Seattle, Tacoma, Highline, Kent and Spokane, serving about 1,000 students. Today, two years later, charter school enrollment has jumped to 2,500 students. This fall, 2017, two more charter schools in Seattle will open their doors to students. In 2018 two more charter schools will open in Walla Walla and Tukwila. About two-thirds of Washington’s charter school students come from low-income, minority families.

School choice is not limited to public charter schools. Many states have created ways to help families enroll their children in private schools. These programs include vouchers, tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts. For example, North Carolina provides disabled students with a private school voucher worth $7,000. North Carolina just passed a new education savings account program, providing $9,000 to families with special needs, military families and students in foster care.

Today 30 states and the District of Columbia offer 61 different school choice programs, and every year states consider and pass new programs. Today about 400,000 children benefit from school choice programs across the country.

Families want more school choice. A January 2017 poll shows 68 percent support for school choice. The pro-school choice coalition is bipartisan and diverse, with majority support from Latinos (75 percent), African Americans (72 percent) and Millennials (75 percent). Eighty-three percent of respondents support offering scholarships to children with special learning needs.

Families are hearing and reading stories about families helped by school choice. For example, Deanne Hilburn of Kent, Wash., is the mother of an eighth-grade boy, Austin. Deanne enrolled Austin at Excel Public Charter School the fall of 2015 when his assigned public school was not meeting his needs. Deanne describes how the individual attention Austin received from Excel’s teachers changed him:

“Austin has gone from being an angry, frustrated boy to a wonderful, responsible young man.”

Deanne says school choice has made “a world of difference” to her family.

Washington state’s new charter school law is helping mothers like Deanne and young men like Austin. Equipping and trusting individual families with school choice is the best way to help students find a quality school, so every child learns.

The Washington Policy Center is a nonprofit organization that promotes sound public policy based on free market solutions. The center has locations in Seattle, Olympia and Eastern Washington.

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