A great school isn’t great for every student. I was fortunate. Columbine High School was a great school for me. My senior year, I was making good grades, an editor on the school newspaper staff, and competing on the speech and debate team. Most of my friends were like me: involved, excelling, in a word, thriving at a public school. I had other friends, however, who were lost in a building with 1,600 students (and Columbine is by no means the largest public school in the state). One friend had been passed along year after year in math and arrived in high school without basic arithmetic skills. She struggled thereafter to gain confidence. Another friend, also smart and gifted in music, dropped out. In a sea of young people, he fell through the cracks. Both would have likely flourished in another environment. A great school isn’t great for every student because one size does not fit all.
Every child has unique gifts and challenges and finding the right school is what school choice is all about. This week is National School Choice Week, a week during which students, community leaders, and activists from across the country celebrate how policies that put parents and students in control are creating better opportunities for children.
In Colorado, there’s a lot to celebrate. At present, through school choice programs, Colorado students may attend any of the state’s 1,500 plus traditional public schools or 187 public charter schools, space permitting. Additionally, thousands of families home school their students independently or with support from an online public school.
The state has seen the steady growth of charter schools over the past twenty years. These public schools are managed independently of their school districts but still have to adhere to state standards, assessments, and civil rights laws. Few charter schools are alike. There are schools that embrace back-to-basics or project-based curricula, foreign language immersion, an arts or science and technology focus, drop-out recovery, Montessori philosophy, Expeditionary Learning format, or online presentation.
Even though a handful of new charter schools open each year, many students have not found a space to achieve or a place to belong. Some of the most effective charter schools have long waiting lists. Students languish in schools where they continue to struggle. Test scores show too many students falling behind. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, less than half of all Colorado’s 4th and 8th graders score at grade level in math and reading and a quarter (26%) of Colorado students do not graduate on time if at all.
While there are nearly 600 private schools in the state, only those families who can afford tuition can access this option. Colorado is not one of the twenty states that support low and middle class families with private school tuition either through a voucher or tax deduction/credit. The Douglas County School District deserves recognition for piloting a local voucher program, but it has been tied up in court. The district’s board and leaders are some of the most innovative and insightful in the country. They understand the value of offering access to as many good schools as possible, even in a district where most of the public schools are performing well. It isn’t about the schools, after all; it is about the students. By providing a small voucher the district would not only save money, it would open more school house doors to more families.
Just as it was in my day, there are a lot of students who are making the grade at their comprehensive public school. Even so, there are still those students who would do better in a different environment. Maybe they need a smaller school where they can get personalized attention. Maybe they need specialized help for a learning disability. Perhaps they need more challenging curricula, more guidance or even a fresh start with a different group of peers. Whatever the case may be, these students would benefit from a range of choices from traditional public schools to charter schools to home schools to independent private schools. It’s time for Colorado to take another step in expanding school choice.