Across America, kids are returning to school. For a lot of them, this is the first time they’ve been in a classroom in more than a year. And given the unpredictability of coronavirus, they can’t know how long it will be before they are forced into full or partial distance learning, or some other arrangement.
This uncertainty may be unwelcome, but it probably can’t be avoided. What’s important is our policy response: We need to make the system more flexible and create new options for families. That way, if schools are forced into distance learning or other emergency measures, families have more tools for educating their students. A side benefit of such reform is that this flexibility can also improve education during normal times, making it a win-win.
We need lawmakers to hear the message families are sending, and to offer new options. That can begin with open enrollment policies, allowing kids to attend public schools other than the one assigned to them based on street address. We can also expand the availability of microgrants or education scholarship accounts to help families afford educational expenses, and increase access to courses offered outside a student’s own school.
Lawmakers can promote innovation within the public school system through charter schools and give students credit for learning outside their own classroom. Several states, such as Alabama, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Mississippi, and West Virginia have enacted laws that will give students the opportunity to earn credits for learning that happens outside of the traditional classroom.
Where students are able to attend schools in person as they always have, these reforms will help supplement and improve their educational experience. If coronavirus or some other unexpected problem hits, they will provide an essential lifeline to make sure kids keep learning even when classrooms aren’t available.
In the last few years, more and more families have turned to a flexible educational system: homeschooling. That trend accelerated once the COVID-19 pandemic began – especially in the Latino community. The percentage of Hispanic families nationwide who chose homeschooling more than quadrupled from 2019 to 2021, according to the Washington Post. During this time period, the percentage being homeschooled tripled overall.
It’s likely the pandemic has a lot to do with this trend, but there’s no doubt concern about schools generally is an important factor. Families everywhere want to be sure their children are getting the best education for them. But many are finding that the local public school assigned to them is not the best choice. It might be an unresponsive bureaucracy, or a limited selection of courses, or a school board focused on issues that have little to do with education. But for whatever reason, families are voting with their feet and choosing something different.
Every child deserves a quality education. That means helping them discover and develop their interests and talents. The reality is that every child is different, blessed with a unique mix of curiosity and skills. All too often, our traditional system of public education is poorly adapted to helping children discover their wide range of skills.
Is it any wonder that when each of us thinks about our favorite teachers, we think about those who connected with us and helped us unlock abilities and interests that we might not have realized were there? Maybe they helped us discover our talent for math or mechanics, or an interest in Shakespeare, or a gift for foreign languages. But instead of encouraging such discovery, the system is intensely focused on shoehorning every child into the same educational experience.
That’s shortsighted, and it can keep kids from succeeding.
We in the Hispanic community know the importance of a quality education. Most of us remember parents and grandparents who stressed it from an early age, and who made sacrifices to help us get ahead. We understand that a good education, discipline, and hard work are keys to success, and to building stronger families and communities. As today’s young people return to school, let’s focus on overdue changes that will prepare the next generation to achieve more than the last.
Daniel Garza is president of The LIBRE Initiative.