School Choice: The Great Educational Equalizer


Maine families want more learning opportunities. Just look at the Carson v. Makin case currently being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Maine parents are challenging a law that bans families from a town tuitioning program if they choose to send their kids to a private school that teaches religion. The echoing theme in this case, and in the experience of families across Maine during the pandemic, is that parents urgently need to be able to choose an education that works for their student, gives them equal opportunity to succeed, and supports their family values.

Students have suffered more than enough the past two years. From school closures, to difficulties accessing online learning, to quarantine policies, kids have faced countless disruptions that have hindered their academic progress. With the next generation of Americans facing a race to catch up on learning lost, one factor can serve as the great educational equalizer. School choice can do what money can never guarantee: It can ensure that all families have access to a quality education, regardless of zip code.

Even pre-pandemic, students’ learning outcomes had begun to decline in recent years. In math and reading, the percentage of eighth grade Maine students who could perform at even basic levels on The Nation’s Report Card assessment dropped by about 5-7 percentage points over the past decade. Those numbers echo broader national trends, in which 13-year-olds tested in math and reading in January 2020—just before COVID hit—scored lower than students tested in 2012.

While learning may have been slowing already, it came to a screeching halt for many kids, especially disadvantaged and special education students, during the pandemic. Which means that now is a critical period of time to help these students prepare for the future.

Money can only play a part in an effective response. We already spend more than $14,000 per public school student each year. On top of that, Maine has received more than $411 million from the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funds. Used well, this historic influx of funding can help kids receive important learning supports, like tutoring. But money isn’t magic, and – when it comes to learning – it can’t do as much as personal agency.

Families having the power of school choice is the best way to help students, especially disadvantaged students, rebound post-pandemic. Only choice can ensure the availability of a quality education, regardless of zip code—because choice guarantees a match between the right school and the right child.

While one student may love STEM and work well in a collaborative group environment, another student may prefer writing seminars and thrive on independent study. Choice personalizes the school to the student, finding the best combination in which each student can shine and fulfil their potential.

Maine families are asking for this personalization; policymakers just need to listen. Besides Carson v. Makin, consider families’ frustration with the lack of remote learning options during the heat of COVID-19—as well as during back-to-school this year—and how this might have been allayed had lawmakers listened to waitlisted families. And, as of fall 2021, homeschooling was up 16 percent from pre-pandemic numbers, another small yet significant illustration of families seeking options beyond their assigned school.

Our educational system should be about these real, daily needs of families. This National School Choice Week (January 23-29) is a week of public awareness about every child’s right to access a quality education – a week of dialogue about how we can improve Maine education.

After all the stresses and strains of the COVID-19 pandemic, our children deserve the best possible opportunity to thrive. More than money, school choice can give them that.

This article was originally published in the Portland Press Herald.