School Choice Should Be a Fundamental Right

Parents -- regardless of income level -- should always have educational options.

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Students in a fourth-grade class taught by Marian Wagner, right, work Thursday, Sept. 30, 2010, in a classroom that was equipped with energy efficient windows two years ago, at the Salmon Bay School in Seattle. Teachers unions, labor groups and contractors are backing a statewide measure on the ballot in November that would issue $505 million in bonds to pay for energy retrofits similar to those in place at Salmon Bay, at public schools and colleges across Washington state.

This week marks the annual National School Choice Week, which highlights the importance of giving parents the freedom to choose where to enroll their children in school. Across America, 5,500 events will showcase school choice and its connection to better outcomes for students. In Washington, D.C., a "Put Kids First" rally will gather parents, teachers, school leaders and students to demonstrate the District's strong support for educational opportunity. Whistle-stop tour events in Columbia, S.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Jackson, Miss., will also help to highlight how school choice gives new hope to students in both urban and rural areas.

These events are so important because they remind policymakers and parents why school choice matters. School choice is a non-issue for the many Americans who have the means to move to school districts with high-quality public schools or to send their children to private schools. But to the millions of families living in poverty, school choice can be a lifeline. These families have their children assigned to schools that are often under-performing, so being able to enroll their kids in a better school can propel students to higher achievement and change the course of their lives.

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Policymakers have introduced a variety of school-choice options, including public school choice, magnet schools, charter schools and school vouchers. Today, 3,700 magnet schools operate in various parts of the country, more than 6,000 charter schools operate in 42 states and D.C. and nearly 250,000 families benefit from some type of private school choice option.

While the concept of school choice continues to draw criticism from teachers' unions, parents give school choice high marks. The latest national poll from Phi Delta Kappa, an organization of education professionals, and Gallup found that 70 percent of Americans support public charter schools, with a majority saying that public charter schools provide a better education than traditional public schools.

Political leaders from both parties are following the public's lead. Republicans across the country tout school choice as a way to improve educational outcomes for poor and minority students – while hoping to make electoral inroads with their parents. Democrats, traditionally aligned with teachers' unions, have been increasingly supportive of school choice as well. Between 2006 and 2010, a majority of the school choice bills that became law had the support of a Democratic governor or legislative chamber. Perhaps nothing reflects the growing bipartisan consensus around educational opportunity better than the featured speakers at a rally kicking off National School Choice Week in Houston – Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.

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The important thing to remember as we celebrate educational opportunity this week is that school choice isn't just about having another school option; it's about giving every child access to a high-quality school. That requires adequate funding, an amicable regulatory structure that allows school leaders to bring innovations to classrooms and information for parents to make educated choices.

Recently, the Brookings Institution released its second annual "Education and Competition Index,"  assessing the 100 largest U.S. school districts for the quality of options they offer and how well they educate families to make use of school-choice information. Leading the index once again were the New Orleans Recovery District (formed after Hurricane Katrina) and New York City, districts that are not only offering options but also ensuring that these options are high-quality.

So during this National School Choice Week, let's follow the lead of these great American cities by embracing choice as a fundamental right for all families – regardless of income – and also pledging to ensure that the options offered are of the highest quality.

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