Dad gets some new insights into the importance of school choice

The best advice my wife and I received on how to manage daily life with newly born twin daughters was from our pediatrician: get them on a schedule. Any schedule that works for you is fine, but it should be the same schedule for both children, and stick to it. It was a great insight from a pro and it has served us well. Our lives have gone far more smoothly than we feared they would all those years ago in the wake of the arrival of two very tiny babies needing constant care and attention.

My girls, circa 2002. Note the socks used for gloves on their tiny hands. Another decision point.

We have continued to treat our kids as a unit in most matters, including their education, which was marked by several decision points on opting into and out of schools. Now, however, as they finish their first year of high school, we are faced, for the first time, with choosing separate options for the girls—and that process has brought some new insights.

First, school choice is not a “one and done” proposition. Parents who utilize something other than default district assignment must exercise constant vigilance. A new school leader can change focus, a school’s population can shrink or grow too much for comfort, teacher turnover can alter the trajectory of course content as well as pedagogy, and extracurriculars can come and go. Just because the school you chose spans grades K-8 doesn’t mean you have to stick around for all nine years. Sure, it’s easier, but it may not be right. Watch the signs, both in the school and the child. It’s up to parents to monitor, evaluate, decide, and act. No one else will do it for you. Nor should they.

Second, not all kids—even twins—will thrive in the same education environment. Our children have been in a Montessori school, a very traditional religious school, and an outside-of-the-box STEM/early college model. Both have exceeded our expectations largely because these schools were good overall performers (the main reason we opted in), but the efforts required of them and the areas of their best achievement varied greatly. This was a main motivator in choosing different schools for each of them for the upcoming school year.

Third, it’s all about the future. This bit of insight comes from my wife, who has prefaced nearly all decisions in regard to our kids with, “What decision now will best serve them at age 18?” And while high expectations, challenging curricula, and mastery-based learning have been strong, steady guideposts in answer to that question over the years, the focus can change when age 18 actually gets closer. Ohio’s graduation requirements, even in their most potent form, are none too onerous. A combination of good schools, dedicated students, steady progress, and every adult in the process keeping their eye on the prize can get most kids where they need to be at or before 12th grade. However, if any piece of the machine breaks down, trouble can ensue and change may be necessary. For one of our girls, the current school seems well suited to continue providing a solid pathway to her diploma and to life after high school; for the other, while the diploma would be easily achievable, the pathways available after that are not well aligned with her future goals.

And so it is that our twins will attend separate schools this fall for the first time in their lives, with one staying put in her hard-to-describe but pretty darn awesome early-college/STEM/mastery school and one moving to a secular private school with something of an entrepreneurship bent. Though this change is a departure from our pediatrician’s advice, we know why we’re doing it: it is the best choice for these youngsters at this critical juncture, based on their needs as we (and they) understand them. That’s a new insight for us, as well as a seismic shift in our family’s daily regimen—and I believe it has implications beyond our own choices.

My family is fortunate to have options near us (although this is by our design, having chosen to live where we do) and to have pretty well informed and affordable access to those choices. All parents want to make the best decisions for their children, especially in terms of education, and that desire should not be limited by ZIP code or income. Ohio’s leaders can offset any deficits that parents may have in this regard by prudent, family-friendly, and student-centric education policies. All parents should have easy access to full and clear information on every school available to them; transportation should be student-centric, adaptable, and free to families for education purposes; and doors should be open to the widest array of quality choices that their circumstances will allow.

Vouchers, charter schools, borderless STEM schools, and interdistrict open enrollment all widen the options available to tens of thousands of parents who can’t swing it on their own but whose children nonetheless deserve the best choices. But even more must be done to widen, simplify, and empower choice so that every family can experience what mine has: great schools, clear success, and a bright future. There is no one right answer, but actively recruiting strong charter networks to Ohio, statewide distribution of choice information and comparison data, centralization of school registration across sectors, increasing the number and variety of standalone schools, and decoupling school transportation from district control must be at the top of the list of options.

No further insight is required to know that choice is the right path.

Let’s go. 

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,