Families Have School Options, We Just Don’t Spell Them Out in Plain English

Over my 15 years of working in education, I have grown to appreciate that parents are far more savvy, knowledgeable, and resourceful than policy wonks and pundits give them credit for. Because parents care so much about their children, they will go out of their way to find out about quality education options that will help them to succeed. (Just think about the learning pods and co-ops that families created this year!)

But that doesn’t mean that navigating K-12 education is exactly a walk in the park. For something that impacts every family, education can be one of the most jargon-filled, unnecessarily complicated fields there is.

In many cases, that jargon puts both a literal and metaphorical barrier between students and the schools that work best for them. If parents don’t have the right information about the school choice options in their area, don’t understand the application process, or don’t recognize that they could qualify for assistance, they may pass up opportunities that could change their children’s futures.

While the specific options vary from place to place, all states provide multiple school choice opportunities for interested parents. Forty-four states offer charter schools–taxpayer-funded schools with more flexibility than traditional public schools. A total of 46 states provide some form of open enrollment, where students can attend public schools outside their assigned neighborhood boundaries. A majority of states also offer private school choice programs to fund students’ attendance at the school that works best for them. All states offer homeschooling options, and many offer free online programs as well.

Unfortunately, states rarely present this information to parents, in a user-friendly way, on official state websites. For example, if you visit the website of your state’s department of education, you will likely find content that is written by educators and for educators, with pages of regulations, forms and bureaucratic details. What’s missing is usually a focus on presenting information easily and clearly for moms and dads. 

States that find themselves without parent-friendly websites do not need to reinvent the proverbial wheel. They can simply replicate some great ideas from other states. For instance, Massachusetts contains an entire section on school options for parents—including a parent’s guide to choosing a school—on a clearly marked section of its website. Florida’s website shows details about all six types of schools and its several private school scholarship programs in one easy-to-navigate parent school choice hub. Arizona offers a school search tool for both traditional public schools and public charter schools. These resources provided by Massachusetts, Florida, and Arizona should inspire other states to improve the information they provide to families.

What else can states add to official websites to support parents? We talk to tens of thousands of parents about their school choice journeys annually and they tell us they’re looking for are school finder maps, guides to open enrollment, explainers about charter schools and webinars or videos about how choice works. They also want to know what magnet, online or private school programs exist in their state. They’re curious about homeschooling and the regulations around it. And they are very interested in the unified enrollment dates and deadlines that will guide the timing of their choice.

By improving and expanding the information provided to families, states can help families immediately, and increase the likelihood that parents will find schools and learning environments that best meet the needs of their children. This can happen without passing new legislation, without controversy and without spending much money at all. 

In the meantime, National School Choice Week is happy to fill the void. Our website includes comprehensive, detailed information about school choice options in each state. The information is presented in a practical and user-friendly way, so that parents do not need to decode bureaucratic terminology. We even added a school search tool, Schools Near Me, this year. 

In the face of the pandemic, parents being able to discover their school options from the safety of their home is tremendously important. It takes everyone involved in education—educators, parents, school leaders, policymakers and website designers—to make that happen. But when we do, everyone will win. 

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