Opinion: Increase choice as public schools can’t meet all kids’ needs

In a guest column, Corey Burres of the Georgia Center for Opportunity says school choice advocates are not anti-public schools. The Atlanta-based center is a conservative think tank that advocates for school choice, including Georgia’s private school tax credits.

Burres is a parent, foster parent and advocate and documentary filmmaker. He formerly worked for the Freedom Foundation in Washington state.

By Corey Burres

As states like Utah and Iowa pass sweeping school choice legislation, it is important to understand no one is trying to defund public schools. The millions of American parents pleading with legislators across the country to open up educational options for their kids are not secretly hoping public schools go away. It’s a partisan myth that is dividing us on education and resulting in burnout and frustration for everyone.

I grew up riding the big yellow bus to my local public school. My kids spent most of their education in public schools. I’m thankful for public schools and the teachers who work so hard to educate and enlighten our children.

Public schools are immeasurably valuable.

It’s my respect for that value that makes me question why so many have politicized fear around educational concepts like school choice, charter schools and scholarship programs. We must face the fact that our education system is overwhelmed. There is no possible way an area public school can meet the diverse needs of every single student.

Yet that is exactly what many expect of them. We expect that public schools will be able to address the learning needs of kids with a wide array of abilities, physical and emotional needs and unique home and personal challenges. You can understand why teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

Corey Burres

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Imagine going to work with a lesson plan and knowing that five of your students will struggle because they have a diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disability, another five will have ADHD and struggle to focus and another five will be facing home issues and food insecurity. A teacher’s lesson plan is expected to get each of these different students to the same level of success. Add in that we are asking teachers to instruct or guide moral standards and you have a recipe for frustration and burnout.

But it’s not just about teachers. It’s about the kids getting a quality education. Let me be clear, quality education is not an input solely determined by great teaching but an output of what is learned. You can have the greatest teacher, but if the child isn’t learning, they aren’t receiving a quality education. Many years ago, I worked on filming a documentary on education called “Flunked.

Then, like now, the United States was falling behind internationally, and we wanted to see if there were any schools doing something different. We traveled up and down the West Coast talking with schools that served low-income, inner-city students, schools in rural areas and others that focused on performing arts. As a young parent, it was fascinating and inspiring to see what was available.

Sadly, as I returned home, I faced a different reality for my family. The teacher assigned to my then-5-year-old daughter told my wife and I that our daughter was likely to be bored and not challenged. The local school simply couldn’t provide what she needed, and we were forced to find alternatives.

Thankfully, we had family and others who helped us collect the money necessary to get her into an option that would challenge her. Eventually, we moved and were able to get her back into a public school where she thrived.

But what about the many kids and parents who have no opportunity because they can’t afford it or live in the wrong district? Is quality education only promised to those who can pay up or live in the right ZIP code?

We are stressing public schools by expecting them to be all things to all kids and we are failing to deliver quality education. Even as school choice options become more mainstream across the country, we’re still clinging to the fear of public schools going away. Even the fear that public schools will suddenly be defunded is a myth with per-student funding actually going up over the last decade despite more options being available.

We need to look to innovation in education and stop fearing change. Keep public schools at the center while decreasing the stress on the system by creating alternatives. After all, what we all want is a great education for our kids.