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Study: Public Districts Emerge as Strong Choice Providers

It’s a common refrain among school choice advocates: Public schools and their “one-size-fits-all” approach to education leave many, if not most, students behind.

But this image of America’s public schools as monolithic and inflexible simply isn’t true, says Tom Gentzel, CEO and executive director of the National School Boards Association. In fact, this is what Gentzel said yesterday as part of a panel discussion on Capitol Hill:

“Local school boards and administrators have been rethinking schools for quite a while. In fact, the local schools that our children and grandchildren are attending today don’t look at all like the schools many of us attended. Public education has changed dramatically to meet the diverse needs of students.”

Despite the prevailing narrative, much of which has been coopted by advocates of for-profit education, public school districts are evolving the old-guard model of K12 education from a top-down, teacher-led process, to one focused on personalized learning and exploration, Gentzel says. Many of these same districts are committed to providing exceptional choices for students and families within their systems.

During yesterday’s event, NSBA’s research arm, the Center for Public Education (CPE), released a new report, Busting the Myth of ‘one-size-fits all’ public education, which illustrates how public schools offer internal choices to students and families.

The study uses high-level survey data to compare the types of educational options public school systems provide students versus those offered by private or parochial schools.

CPE finds that public schools are either as good, or better, at providing students with options, be it what school buildings they choose to attend, or what programs they participate in.

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Here’s some key takeaways from the report:

  • Public school districts increasingly offer multiple school building options. Two-thirds of public school students have options to transfer to other schools within their districts or neighboring districts. These alternatives include magnet schools and public charters.
  • Public school districts do a better job than private schools of offering unique education options within their school buildings, such as AP courses, gifted or honors programs, distance learning, or college and career experiences. For instance, 77 percent of public high schools offer gifted or honors programs, CPE found, compared with 56 percent of private schools.
  • Public school systems offer more extracurricular options than private schools. CPE found that public schools were more likely to offer vital afterschool care, tutoring, or enrichment programs than private schools, along with arts and athletics activities.

To illustrate just how effective public schools have become at providing their own school choice options, NSBA invited three school leaders from across the country to share their experiences.

At the core of these individual success stories was a system-wide commitment to personalized learning, a diversity of education programs, and the use of partnerships to provide students with real-world experiences.

Here’s how each featured school leader summed up the philosophies behind their approaches:

Terrell Davis, executive director of public affairs and special projects at Wichita Public Schools in Kansas: “What we want to do is offer that smorgasbord approach to education. We want to have enough programs—and diverse programs—that anyone in our city can find a program that best fits their kids’ needs. Since roughly 2010, we’ve seen our high school graduation rate increase by 15.7 percent.”

Craig Plank, school board chair at Richland School District Two in South Carolina: “Simply put, our vision, especially as a board, is to improve, retain, and challenge all of our students and set all of our students up for success. To achieve this we as a board support the district to provide a wide range of choices to attract families and businesses to our district.”

John Craig, assistant principal at Hazen Union High School in Vermont: “It’s been my experience that at the heart of choice, personalization, and flexible pathways exists service, community, and balance…With this transformation, the traditional sense of the classroom is changing as well. Teachers at Hazen and across the state are moving from the front of the classroom to a spot alongside and next to our students.”

To see the full panel discussion, check out NSBA’s Facebook live video below (Note: The video has a few audio issues):

How is your school system creating choice options for parents and students? What steps are you taking as a school leader to offer a more personalized and diverse approach to education? Tell us in the comments.