Across the state, parents are agonizing over their children’s education. Parents are constantly asking themselves, “Are my children in a good school?” or “Are my kids getting the best education possible?” The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these concerns as the status quo was blasted apart and online learning became the norm for many. Tragically, thousands of families across the state are trapped in failing school districts, with little alternative. For far too many, the quality of education is tied up with something as arbitrary as zip code, whether a family can squeeze their way into an area with good public schools. (Many of us in southern Boone did just that: relocated here from elsewhere because of the high-quality school district.)
The current disparity in education should be unacceptable even during the best of times. This pandemic has cracked the issue wide open, and the plain truth is on display for everyone to see: We need alternatives to failing public schools, and the answer is not a one-size-fits-all education system that leaves some students behind. Thankfully, we have many options for a better future to choose from, and they all involve reforming public education to allow for school choice.
Our own family agonized over the lack of quality education available to our children. Years ago, when we first moved into our starter home, people told us our kids would have access to good public education. But the data told another story. I was shocked to learn the district-wide APR was in the bottom 10 percent of districts statewide. Third-grade Language Arts proficiency was less than 30 percent. More than 70 percent of the kids were not proficient in basic language. When I raised concerns, what I heard most was, “You and your husband are both educated; your kid will be fine.” He will be fine? Is our standard of success in education surviving a failing public school? This is an intolerable standard for any parent.
So after much consideration, our family made a decision I never thought I would make. For the sake of our children, we packed up and moved. I wish that wasn’t our only choice. I wish we had alternatives, but we did not. Our choices were either stay in a failing district, send our kids to a private school (with a daunting price tag), or move elsewhere. We chose to prioritize our children.
We were lucky to find a better place to send our kids. What keeps me awake at night is that many families do not have that option. Families need options. Families deserve school choice. That is why I advocate for smart policy reforms to help expand choices for families like allowing charter schools in places like Jefferson City and Columbia. Charter schools are publicly funded public schools that exist outside the traditional education system. These schools are renowned for their innovation. Charter schools have led the way for educating students through virtual learning, not just trying to keep them busy. Unfortunately, current state law limits charter schools in urban areas. If charter schools were expanded, more students would have access to these life-changing schools.
Our children deserve the best education possible, regardless of zip code or family wealth. A good education should not be dependent on zip code. I support school choice because it gives all kids the opportunity for the great education that they deserve.
Stephanie Bell is an attorney from Ashland.