Dr. Shaunette Parker
From social distancing at grocery stores to drive-in church services, the coronavirus pandemic has caused us to reimagine many elements of our daily lives, especially K-12 education. Now, more than ever, parents need flexible, affordable learning options for their children. School choice can be an effective solution to our state’s education struggles – if it’s accompanied by community buy-in.
Before the coronavirus hit, South Carolina already lagged behind other states’ performance on test scores, with students of color struggling in particular with performance gaps. Against this backdrop, COVID-19 has increasingly fragmented what families are looking for in a learning environment. Some moms and dads have at-risk family members at home; some have children who struggle with remote learning; some can afford to stay home; some cannot.
As COVID-19 has forced families to come face to face with their unique priorities, there have been massive shifts in the educational choices that families have made this year. Virtual charter school enrollment has surged, for instance, and pockets of our state have seen private school growth as parents have scrambled to meet their children’s need for in-class learning. But does our education status quo support all types of families in choosing the best education for their children, or just those with resources?
Around the state, South Carolina does offer free online virtual education, homeschooling, magnet programs, and charter schools. Some parents can also choose to utilize open enrollment, in which some districts permit students to attend public schools outside their assigned neighborhood boundaries. And parents of children with special needs can choose to apply to the Exceptional SC Program to help fund tuition at the independent school of their choosing.
While our state does offer some valuable school choices, these choices aren’t evenly accessible to all types of families. Especially in the wake of disruption, we need more community support to make school choice meaningful and accessible to all.
The most vulnerable families often encounter the most obstacles in accessing school choice. In many cases, families aren’t provided clear information about their public school options and whether there are different learning philosophies in place in the schools they can choose from. And this past year, many families craved the in-person learning and smaller classrooms that private school represented – yet costs prohibited their access. Families are anxious for support. When Gov. McMaster proposed SAFE Grants to provide up to 5,000 families with one-time scholarships to help afford private school tuition, there was rapid interest from 15,000 families.
Children have diverse needs, and policymakers should show that they value all types of families, and all those diverse needs, in our state. But it’s not up to policy makers alone. Every member of our community has an interest in ensuring our educational system achieves its full potential. Teachers, parents, and even those without their own children should care about investing in public and private learning opportunities so all families have options that work for them and meet their needs.
While we don’t have one easy solution to our education problems, the real solution will come from the collective work of all stakeholders – families, teachers, administrators, and policymakers – within our community.
Dr. Shaunette Parker is the Outreach Director of My SC Education. For more than 15 years, she has worked toward supporting positive youth development and effective education in underserved communities.