Was 2013-2014 an “A+” Year for Public School Options?

By: Beth Purcell
Ah, report card season. Once more we look back and ask, “How did I do this semester…and this year?” before we embrace summer vacation.  At PublicSchoolOptions.org, a parent-run advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that families have choices among public schools, we too are taking a moment to reflect.  We take pride in the fact that this school year brought more stable, robust opportunity in education for many students.  But for others, the semester closes on still unanswered questions – and unrealized education goals.
Take Kansas, for example. The state’s public virtual students nearly lost their schools in the face of massive cuts to public charter schools by state lawmakers. In Kansas, these schools are the only option. But Kansas families sprang to action, penning letters and op-eds for local newspapers and voicing their opposition during legislative committee hearings.  The parent voice triumphed.  Legislators significantly reduced the magnitude of proposed cuts, keeping virtual schools sustainable for the many families who depend upon them.
New Jersey families also made strides for school choice this year. After a disappointing lack of leadership from state leaders last year on school choice, New Jersey received a victory handed down from the State Superior Court.  The court’s decision disagreed with a New Jersey Education Association claim and acknowledged that the Charter School Act DOES give Commissioners authority to approve schools that offer portions of their teaching online, clearing the path for virtual public schools in the state.  With more support from Education Commissioner David Hespe, students throughout New Jersey may soon have improved access to a wider variety of public school options.
And families from states across the country celebrated excellence in teaching this year through our annual American Pioneer of Teaching Award.  In our biggest outpouring of support yet, hundreds of nominations and thousands of votes poured in before this year’s winner, Georgia Cyber Academy’s Christian Kraus, took the 2014 title.  Seeing the responsiveness of so many families marked one of the school year’s biggest successes for the students and parents of PublicSchoolOptions.org.
But for too many students, true choice in public education is still a few steps away.  Many of our nation’s military families, for instance, don’t yet have access to the options they need or the school that fits their children’s unique learning styles.  By establishing our Military Families Chapter, we are working to help military families have a collective voice and gain access to public schools – just as our many state chapters are doing.   Still challenged to gain access to options or to maintain access to virtual public schools once parents are stationed across state or national boundary lines, these families have a long way to go to get the public education they deserve.
We must also consider the scores of students waitlisted for an opportunity to attend a public charter school – 1 million students in total.  Each school year that passes on the waiting list marks time these students could be thriving in an educational environment that accommodates their needs and reflects their learning styles, instead of in a school that’s failing – or failing to work for them.
So while we prepare to embrace summer vacation, let’s take a moment to think of the families for whom this school year has been less than ideal.  And let’s use the momentum of this year’s victories to prepare to make education opportunities available to more students in the school year to come.
Beth Purcell is President of PublicSchoolOptions.org, a national alliance of parents that supports and defends parents’ rights to access the best public school options for their children

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