JODICE: Good medicine: How school choice benefits education

Students make their way out of Needham B. Broughton High School in Raleigh after the first day of the new school year for Wake County schools, Monday, August 28, 2017. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

Imagine if you couldn’t choose your health care provider. Instead, you’d be zoned to a clinic or hospital based solely on your home address. Medical providers there would supply all your health care needs: annual exams, scans, surgery, treatment. If you received a worrisome diagnosis, you’d need to forego a second opinion from a physician at another facility — unless you could afford to pay all costs out of pocket. It sounds absurd, right? What if you had cancer? What if your child did? You’d likely want the best doctor you could find, who possessed the skills and expertise to meet your specific need. Sure, most of us are accustomed to some limitations on personal choice in our health care. Yet it’s hard to conceive of a system that would restrict choice as severely as the one outlined above.

But think about it: That’s what we do in K-12 education today.

In our current system, children are assigned to traditional public schools based on where they live. That’s it. In all but the most innovative school districts with open enrollment, parents can’t choose among traditional public schools. Unless families opt out of traditional public schooling altogether — by applying to a public charter or magnet school, choosing to homeschool, or electing to pay tuition at a private school — they’re limited to their child’s assigned school.

This curtails choice in practical and powerful ways. Many families cannot afford private school tuition. Others do not have easy access to a public charter school. Still others do not have the financial or work flexibility to homeschool a child. These families are left with no real chance to exercise choice in their child’s education.

Fortunately, there’s a major shift happening in education today, and it’s sweeping state legislatures. The revolution, fueled by grassroots support, is based on a simple yet powerful idea: Parents know best what kind of school works for their child, so they should get to choose that school. This is similar to what many of us seek with a health care provider, right? Of course, there are key differences in how we approach health care and K-12 education in this country — especially when it comes to who provides it, who pays for it, and what role government takes. But that does not negate this fundamental truth: like health care, education thrives with personal choice.

Parent empowerment through personal freedom, known as school choice, has led to new and innovative policies in North Carolina in recent years. How have families responded? They overwhelmingly favor school choice — and they want more of it!

Consider that beginning in 2011, lawmakers removed the cap on public charter schools; since that time, North Carolina has experienced nearly 75 percent growth in these schools. In fact, thousands of students remain on charter school waitlists statewide. Students from 95 counties are enrolled in public charter schools that are physically located in just 61 counties across North Carolina.

Since 2011, state lawmakers have also created three state-sponsored scholarship programs. The Children with Disabilities Scholarship Grant, worth up to $8,000 annually, helps more than 1,100 special needs students access private school or other education services. The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides children from low-income families with private school scholarships of up to $4,200. More than 7,200 children currently use Opportunity Scholarships to attend private schools statewide. For 2018-19, families submitted more than 7,500 new applications — more than triple the number of new scholarships available.

In 2017, state lawmakers established a third scholarship program, the Special Needs Education Savings Account (ESA). The ESA provides the parents of children with more severe disabilities with up to $9,000 annually to pay private school tuition and other educational expenses. For the 2018-19 school year, families submitted more than 1,400 applications — four times the number of scholarships available.

Many children are flourishing in their assigned public schools. But other children are not, and they need another option. When it comes to their education, school choice isn’t just a good idea. It’s good medicine.

Brian Jodice is the interim president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.