By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org
One of the greatest challenges for proponents of school choice is simply educating parents that they have a choice.
“If we’re going to really have parents engaged in knowing what all their options are, someone’s got to go and tell them,” said Jonathan Butcher, education director at Goldwater Institute.
His group has published a handy school choice guide for Arizona parents. The booklet has information on each choice — what education savings accounts are, for example — who qualifies, and how to pursue each option.
The Center for Education Reform keeps a Parent Power Index on its website, ranking states based on teacher quality, school choice, transparency and other information that could help parents make good choices.
“There’s a huge disconnect between policy implementation and practice, especially when it comes to educational choices,” said Kara Kerwin, CER president. “There’s a lot of barriers. Once a law gets passed, you’ll have those that defend the status quo working hard to quell any excitement about it. Sometimes we put these options or these choices in the hands of bureaucrats who don’t know how to communicate with parents.”
School choice proponents are taking to the streets, and mailboxes, and community centers to get the word out. Here’s what some of them are doing.
Word of mouth marketing and community outreach has been the most sustainable and effective way to spread the word in Florida, said Alissa Ciaramello, vice president for marketing at Step Up for Students.
Step Up provides scholarships for Florida students who are homeless, in foster care or whose families make up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, allowing those students to attend private schools if they choose.
“We want to empower those families, parents and caregivers to find the best educational option for their child because we’ve found that education is one of the ways to break generational poverty. It’s really what we believe in wholeheartedly,” Ciaramello said.
The effort isn’t intended to be anti-public school, she said, but pro-family.
“We don’t play into the failing school model,” she said. “We just want the families we serve to have choice about their child’s education, and a school may do well for one child but not for another. It’s all about finding the right learning environment for that particular child.”
The group works with community-based agencies, schools, families, employers and faith-based providers to connect information with families.
“Really, we try to find anyone and everyone who spends time with our families, but it’s a very multi-faceted approach — top down and bottom up,” Ciaramello said.
Step Up includes information about school choice in newsletters or on websites for community groups, she said. They’ve stuffed Happy Meal bags at McDonald’s and partnered with other groups that work with foster kids, homeless families or senior citizens who may be raising their grandchildren.
“[Scholarship families] felt empowered, humbled and grateful to have this opportunity for their children, and they’re very happy to spread the word,” Ciaramello said.
Lawmakers in Arkansas considered tax-credit scholarships and voucher programs at the most recent legislative session, but neither passed.
“People are just learning about school choice in this state, and I think there are a lot of questions,” said Virginia Walden-Ford, founder of the Arkansas Parent Network. School choice bills are likely to return when lawmakers come back together, she said.
So Walden-Ford traveled the state giving presentations about school choice. The meetings were well-attended and parents were excited, she said. But they had a lot of learning to do.
“I said, ‘Let me give you information about school choice,’ and they’d ask, ‘Well, what is school choice?’” she said.
“We provided information about school choice and what states have school choice programs and how they’re working, particularly in Louisiana and Florida and D.C.,” she said. “We talk to parents about how effective school choice programs can be for kids who just aren’t doing well in a traditional setting.”
She gave parents opportunities to ask questions and discuss their feelings about their kids’ schools.
Walden-Ford had advocated for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for years, then returned to Arkansas.
“It was time to come home and see what I can do to help here,” she said.
National School Choice Week
Every community is different, and no one method of spreading the word will work everywhere, said Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week.
The organization promotes a week in January — about the time parents are enrolling their children in school for the upcoming year — to celebrate “school choice regardless of choice,” Campanella said.
That includes traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, virtual schools and homeschooling.
Last year, the country saw about 3,600 School Choice Week events, and Campanella said he hopes for about 5,000 events for 2014.
School Choice Week is intentionally decentralized; participants plan events in their communities and don’t need permission from the organization. In the past, participants have hosted school fairs, rallies, roundtable discussions, movie screenings and community service activities.
“In a society where for so many years, parents didn’t have school choices for their kids, we almost become conditioned to know that you’re going to be assigned to a certain school, and if you don’t like it, there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “So when people hear they have a choice, they’re often very surprised.”
He said he hopes parents begin thinking about K-12 education the way many of them think about higher education: “What school are we going to send our child to?”
One of the biggest challenges in the school choice movement is parents not knowing their options, he said.
“The reform community has gotten a lot better at reaching parents and telling them of their options, but there still needs to be a lot of work done in reaching parents in the communities where they live and communicating with them in the ways they receive their news and information.”
Contact Mary C. Tillotson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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