Sam Duell is the Policy Director for Charter Schools at ExcelinEd.
This is National School Choice Week, a time when you may read about families choosing one school over another. To policymakers and education professionals, the choice can appear binary. Public schools or private ones. Full-time online schools or full-time brick-and-mortar schools. But I’m not so sure parents and families think like that. How do they think about their choices, and what do families want for their children?
Here is some new evidence and a fresh reason to support policies that create a plurality of options and opportunities for families.
In August 2019, the Grieb family of Oklahoma sued their online charter school for involuntarily disenrolling their children. Why were they disenrolled? This family had simultaneously enrolled their children in public and private schools. (You can follow the case here.)
Did you catch that? This bears repeating. Each of these students was attending two schools at the same time—one private and one public.
A quick note about charter schools: believe it or not, charter schools are public schools. They are required to follow state laws and to comply with rules set by their oversight body, usually called an “authorizer.” Charter schools only exist when they have a contract with an authorizer.
In this case, the contract that allows this particular online charter school to exist explicitly prohibits dual enrollment between public and private schools. So, in an effort to comply with state agency rules, the online charter kicked the students out.
However, the Griebs have an interesting argument. They claim that the Oklahoma Constitution guarantees a public education to every child regardless of which private education programs they solicit.
“The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.” – Article XIII § 1, Oklahoma Constitution
All children may be educated. Not some. Not most. Not 90%. All of them. And disallowing private school children access to public schools could be unconstitutional.
In other words, this family is essentially arguing that students who attend private schools and homeschools have a right to access public education regardless of their enrollment status in other schools. Families should not have to choose between private schools and public schools, and public education is a public benefit intended for every student.
No matter what happens with the case, the argument presented here provides a fresh perspective on school choice conversations.
The policy implications are particularly interesting for people who care about access, equity and equal opportunity since it may provide a new argument for states to support policies that create a more pluralistic form of public education. The argument could go something like this:
In some states, this is already happening. Look at DC Public Schools and their dual enrollment program in private universities like Georgetown, Catholic University or Howard University. Check out Florida’s Reading Scholarship Accounts, which offers $500 per student for private reading tutors and other literacy supports. Even the state of California provides preschool through private nonprofit agencies. And if you are concerned about flexible scheduling related to seat-time, a recent ExcelinEd analysis reveals that all 50 states and D.C. allow some flexibility and 32 states provide high-levels of flexibility.
So Oklahoma would not be the only state whose constitution could theoretically favor an argument like this one. After a brief review of 50 state constitutions, you will likely find that at least 24 of them guarantee public education to all children.
Here are five examples from five different regions of the country.
Florida Constitution – Article IX § 1(a)
The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.
Illinois Constitution – Article X § 1
A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities. The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law. The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.
Montana Constitution – Article X § 1
It is the goal of the people to establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person. Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of the state.
Virginia Constitution – Article VIII § 1
The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.
Washington Constitution – Article IX § 1
It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.
If policymakers want to be fair and equitable and if they care about their own state’s constitution, then they should be supporting policies that open access to public, private and home education at the same time. That could mean policies that allow students to attend more than one school, hire a private tutor or experience a summer camp.
However, there are some large hurdles that may prevent states from providing equal access to public and private education—one of them being Blaine Amendments. For more on that and the recent U.S. Supreme Court Case, check out the blogs written by my colleagues Cara Candal and Tim Abram.
The Grieb case hints at four things we observe more generally about families and school choice.
First, families will generally go to great lengths to secure great educational opportunities. This family desired to see their students obtain a meaningful education, and by enrolling in two schools at the same time they demonstrated a willingness to be creative and an unwillingness to wait for permission. This is not uncommon. If you know the stories of Miss Virginia, Monica Olivera or Tanya McDowell, then you can see how creative and resourceful parents will be. They will advocate for a scholarship program, give up a career to ensure their children are bilingual or even “steal” an education.
Second, families generally don’t care as much about the provider of education (neighborhood, charter, private, home) as they do the opportunity to obtain a quality education wherever it exists. In fact, there are recent indications that school choice is really popular. For example, a 2019 RealClearPolitics poll found that 68% of voters support school choice and 70% support federal tax credit scholarships.
Third, families see any one school as largely insufficient to meet the needs of their children. The Grieb family sought two schools. Other families seek cultural schools, Sunday schools and private tutoring—enrichments that have proven popular and durable. For example, more non-Asian Americans are attending Chinese Saturday schools. And Hebrew Sunday schools have been in America since at least 1838. Or look at the popularity of private tutoring programs. Kumon estimated private tutoring services would be valued at $227 billion by 2022. And the largest provider of private tutoring, Laureate Education, which is formerly known as Sylvan Learning Centers, is reported to have $3.32 billion in revenue over the last year. This demonstrates the point that enrichments cost money, they are provided outside of typical school hours and they are very popular.
Finally, this case demonstrates something that is not highlighted in today’s rhetorical competitions. Private-school parents and students don’t hate public schools. According to the same RealClearPolitics poll where 68% of people supported school choice, 30% of respondents said they would choose a traditional public school. That was the highest percentage of all responses. School choice supporters see value in public education, and they want and need it to exist. If this case is any indication, it would seem that some private-school parents would love to see their kids participate in public education programs.
I can’t say it any more clearly than Miss Virginia Walden Ford did earlier this month. “Despite my son William’s struggle I am not anti-public school,” she explained. “I am pro-parent empowerment when it comes to picking the best school for individual children and having the ability to make that choice.”
What do parents want for their children? Families want their children to have real opportunities. Policymakers can support equitable access to those opportunities by championing the ability to choose one or more schools in one or more settings served by one or more providers. It’s the fair thing to do.