An election year when school choice is ignored

Odd commentary considering the writer is working for the company who screws up kids. 

An election year when school choice is ignored

By Nate Davis, contributor    

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It’s bad enough that during two straight weeks of Republican and Democratic conventions, we never really grasped a true sense of what newly nominated presidential contenders would do to improve the uncertain state of K-12 education in America.

Worse — especially since then — is that we have yet to see a solid reform-driven or innovation-focused commitment from candidates as the solution to our education crisis. A sorely needed exchange on parental choice and access to creative online learning platforms is, perhaps, the most significant missing policy deep-dive since the presidential cycle began in earnest over a year ago. For the most part, presidential candidates have steered clear of any focus on choice in K-12 as a main prescription to constant problems plaguing our school systems and challenging our kids.

That’s unfortunate, since parents are voters, too.

It is rather mysterious considering the sheer size, cost and long-term destructive impact of the K-12 crisis. Yet, as candidates on the campaign trail bludgeoned each other over everything from salacious tweets, badly placed emails and hand sizes, little is said on how policymakers could intervene to save the nation’s struggling elementary, middle and high-school students. The intervention is clearly found in school districts embracing new, progressive education models that meet the needs of future societies and workforces — models such as blended experiential and online learning in and, yes, outside the conventional classroom. Models, such as charter schools, that offer parents the options they need to ensure their child’s success in an increasingly competitive global environment.

That battle is no more urgent for any group than it is for our nation’s most underserved and historically distressed: from black and Latino youth to low-income and struggling working-class communities already battered by the effects (and after-effects) of recession. The last thing already economically challenged black or brown students and their parents should worry about is the quality of their education.

Likewise, those high-achieving students, rural students, bullied students and others are desperate for choices that allow them to excel in their education. For example: I met a student from West Virginia last week who enrolled in online courses that she could not take in her local, excellent but small neighborhood school. She and her parents were told by the guidance counselor that the courses she wanted were unavailable. The eventual valedictorian for her class, she took additional courses from a for-profit online provider that allowed her to achieve higher SAT scores and take courses otherwise unavailable to her. There were even language courses available that she would otherwise only take in college. Without choice, this high-achieving student — like hundreds of thousands of others — would not continue to excel and would be limited in what local schools could offer.

Clearly, you can’t have a conversation about improving the quality of life for underserved, diverse populations or high-achieving students unless you pose workable ideas on education. You can’t pose workable ideas on education or expect the condition of underserved youth to improve if you refuse to put school choice and access to new modes of learning in the mix.

Major openings for the presidential candidates to discuss choice and online education as a primary learning tool are either conveniently dismissed, lost in political posturing or altogether forgotten. We clearly can’t rely on the articulation of a policy vision from the Republican nominee (for obvious reasons). But when we look to Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonEx-GM CEO: I’ve always voted Republican until now Election reveals Paul Ryan to be worst speaker in U.S. history Dem Senate candidate knocks Rubio for Trump support MORE for a thoughtful approach on issues such as parental choice, we find her either taking the side of unionized teachers (even if it contradicts earlier, steadfast support for charter schools) or completely missing those grand opportunities to present it as a viable long-term beacon of educational hope.

Nowhere was that unfortunate oversight on vivid display than at her recent appearance before a joint meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. When offered a few moments to lay out her policy vision for black and brown progress in America, Clinton left out school choice and relegated digital learning to merely PCs in the classroom.

Nor did the assemblage of esteemed African-American and Latino reporters, talk-show hosts, editors and producers ask her about it.

Unfortunately, online, radio and cable outlets are so focused on the latest campaign gaffe or doubled down faux pas that the plight of school children gets left behind in the political dust-up.

Still, campaigns refuse any raised or sustained debate on choice as a tangible way to address our ongoing K-12 crisis with any tangible solutions. Few want to take a firm position supporting parental preference in education, despite the vast number of voting parents who want (and need) it. Most seem oblivious to the need for expanded and innovative options for K-12 students, despite an abundance of evidence suggesting online learning, blended classrooms and access to multifaceted educational environments are exactly what’s essential for an increasingly diverse American landscape.

Yet, when examining many of the larger national polls, parents — especially black and Latino parents — are demanding more choice and creative, digital learning in and outside the classroom. In a National Alliance for Public Charter Schools poll released this year, 80 percent of parents supported some form of educational choice, including 63 percent of black parents and 55 percent of Hispanic parents. A Pathways/YouGov survey on school preferences found that black and Hispanic parents were "more likely" to consider "integrated use of technology" when education options were available.

For these population groups, education is perceived as the most effective pathway to upward socioeconomic mobility. The Pew Research Center shows that 66 percent of Americans identify education as a top 10 issue motivating choices this election cycle. In the most recent weekly YouGov/Economist survey, education still ranks among the top-five issues (out of 15), with more African-Americans and Latinos placing it as a "most important issue" than whites. For voters under 30, education is the top concern (partly out of struggles over student debt, and partly out of recent experiences with troubled school systems). That aligns with a recent GenForward joint poll where education was a top-three concern for voters ages 18 to 30, especially voters of color.

This is not much of a surprise. Education is a greater priority to individuals who find themselves historically disadvantaged or farther down the income ladder. To those faced with fewer resources and access to wealth, education is increasingly respected as the ultimate driver of future success — and choice is a chief path to that goal. Yet, presidential nominees and their parties have failed to promote a vision of what will make K-12 education better, even as the shifting demographic environment continues to demand such.

That school choice is not a headlining issue of our time rests not on the shoulders of voters. Elected officials, policymakers, pundits and those who constitute the rest of our active political and media class must aggressively tackle that discussion. We need a debate and movement where educational options are plentiful and innovation in (and outside) the classroom is the norm rather than the exception.

Davis is executive chairman of K12 Inc., a technology-based education company and leading provider of online learning programs to schools across the U.S.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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