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School choice proponents’ challenge? Educating parents

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Part 29 of 126 in the series Educating America

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.

SPREADING THE WORD: Step Up For Students employees Amanda Lopez, William Torres and Mayte Gonzalez shared information about scholarship opportunities with families at Telemundo's Feria de la Familia in Orlando.

SPREADING THE WORD: Step Up For Students employees Amanda Lopez, William Torres and Mayte Gonzalez shared information about scholarship opportunities with families at Telemundo’s Feria de la Familia in Orlando.

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.


TALKING TO LEGISLATORS: At a Pennsylvania event, Kara Kerwin and a parent discuss talking with legislators about school choice.

TALKING TO LEGISLATORS: At a Pennsylvania event, Kara Kerwin of CER and a parent discuss talking with legislators about school choice.

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 [email protected]

Part of 126 in the series Educating America
  1. Arizona mom won’t give up on special needs kids, no matter what state says
  2. Reviving a 1970s lawsuit, DOJ would keep black students in failing schools
  3. Relocating sexually abusive teachers would be more difficult under Pennsylvania bill
  4. DOJ backpedals on Louisiana voucher lawsuit
  5. Court says charter schools won’t pay for Atlanta’s pension debts
  6. Biggest education impact from shutdown? Furloughed bureaucrats
  7. Appeals court upholds Arizona school choice program
  8. Indiana’s voucher program expands; diversity a factor in one family’s choice of school
  9. ‘Vouchers don’t do much good for students’ claim is false
  10. NYC mayor’s race could affect school choice
  11. Vermont public school goes independent, raises ire from state bureaucracy
  12. Arizona education savings accounts aren’t vouchers, study says
  13. Legal institute fights Alabama union’s attempt to repeal school tax credit
  14. Experts: School choice improves education in public schools
  15. SC school-choice program helps special needs kids, could expand
  16. DOJ wants Louisiana parents out of voucher lawsuit
  17. U.S. House passes bill to prevent ‘passing the trash’
  18. ‘Non-traditional’ journalists barred from viewing tax-funded test results early
  19. New center hopes to help charter schools help kids with special needs
  20. Charter school advocate to Philadelphia schools: Listen to parents
  21. $45 million not enough for Philadelphia teachers’ union
  22. Study: Rhode Islanders support school choice
  23. Study: Choice would help failing Chicago schools
  24. Scholarships could lift SC school dedicated to real-life, hands-on learning
  25. Parents make good school choices, study says
  26. Divisive charter school reform bill headed toward vote in PA
  27. In Louisiana school voucher lawsuit, DOJ changes gears
  28. Opponents sue Washington to overturn charter school law
  29. School choice proponents’ challenge? Educating parents
  30. Judge: Federal oversight may not hamper school voucher program
  31. PA lawmakers push to amend tight teacher furlough policies
  32. College ready: A Milwaukee inner-city school success story
  33. Proposed economic furloughs could slay sacred cow of seniority in Pennsylvania schools
  34. What is Massachusetts doing right?
  35. Goldwater to appeal Louisiana school voucher decision
  36. Want to end poverty? Educate the kids
  37. Breakdown in Philly schools not only about the money
  38. North Carolina scholarship program on firm legal footing, attorney argues
  39. Philadelphia school district threatens charters
  40. Belief in student ability key to success at Milwaukee charter school
  41. Three things to know about Philadelphia’s school budget: Debt, pensions and safety
  42. Choosing to sue: Here’s a look at some 2013 lawsuits involving school choice
  43. Philly charter schools outperform district counterparts
  44. California students sue state over ineffective teachers
  45. Study: Public supports parent choice in education
  46. Under new management, Philly Renaissance Schools show growth
  47. New Orleans tops school choice index
  48. AZ to consider four school-choice expansion bills
  49. Florida family ‘blessed’ to be apart of scholarship program
  50. PA lawmakers put education at top of agenda in election year
  51. Louisiana: Feds ‘more interested in skin color than … education’
  52. Charter school for Philadelphia foster children will not be renewed
  53. Governor ties proposed PA education funding to targeted grants
  54. WA’s first charter school serves children, families of ‘extreme poverty’
  55. Vermont attempts to take independence from independent schools
  56. Philly stumbles on way to simplifying enrollment system
  57. Plan for Philly schools keeps charters in check
  58. Missouri ballot initiative would increase funding for public, private schools
  59. New York charter school focuses on family, community
  60. NC school vouchers on hold
  61. WI voucher bill would help special needs students denied open enrollment
  62. Philadelphia schools will end another year in red
  63. PA universities expect state, students to pick up tab on rising tuition
  64. Two ESA bills get House support in AZ
  65. Thousands rally to support New York charter schools
  66. California’s defense begins in Vergara trial
  67. Accountability or overregulation? Charter supporters split over Minnesota bill
  68. PA considers empowering universities to authorize charter schools
  69. Bill would make Florida students eligible for scholarships
  70. To test or not to test? Florida school choice proponents split
  71. Philly school district broke, but the pay is good
  72. Philadelphia charter school sues public school district
  73. Colorado Supreme Court to hear school voucher case
  74. Vermont to reconsider education funding formula
  75. Arizona Supreme Court allows school choice program to stand
  76. Massachusetts charter school bill revived
  77. Quality schools matter more than racial integration, black leaders say
  78. FL again takes up school-choice bill
  79. Choice Media’s videocast tackles host of education issues
  80. Ending teacher seniority rules beyond Philly requires legislative action
  81. New website helps Detroit parents choose schools
  82. Philly schools caught on funding merry-go-round
  83. Louisiana bill would coordinate school choice programs
  84. New D.C. charter school lottery eases but doesn’t eliminate waiting lists
  85. Federal bill attempts to help replicate high-quality state charter schools
  86. Philadelphia schools awaiting taxes from city, state
  87. ACLU alleges discrimination in 138 NJ districts
  88. MN anti-bullying bill could have unintended consequences
  89. Mississippi’s special needs bill to return next year
  90. Illinois considers three-year ban on virtual charter schools
  91. Violent Philly high school source of worry
  92. Auditors examining troubled Philadelphia school district
  93. Civil liberties organization sues to overturn anti-bullying law
  94. Legal conflict over teacher seniority in Philly heats up
  95. Academics, culture help mom choose private school
  96. PA cyber charter schools could be funded by state, not districts
  97. Arizona expands school choice program
  98. The sticky statistic of statewide charter school performance in PA
  99. Louisiana offers new vocational technical program
  100. Benefits are driving high personnel costs in Philadelphia schools
  101. Educators look to grow with expanding Hispanic demographic
  102. Philadelphia flexes muscle over charter schools
  103. Philly school district facing another bleak budget
  104. Andre Agassi dedicates Indianapolis charter school
  105. For PA and neighboring states, school spending and graduation rates don’t add up
  106. At long last, PA school buses could be getting a boost
  107. Arizona charter schools need funding fix, proponents say
  108. Progress reports for Philadelphia schools show uneven achievement
  109. Teachers union opposes ‘Bad Teachers’
  110. Governor’s plans to boost education funding falls short
  111. Georgia’s school-choice program draws legal challenge
  112. Missouri parents want more choice in education
  113. U.S. lawmakers to consider charter school bill
  114. Florida’s school choice expansion awaits governor’s signature
  115. PA charter schools may see drop in funding with new special education formula
  116. In Nevada, your child’s school records could cost $10K
  117. AG, lawmakers propose similar updates to PA charter school rules
  118. NC school voucher program gets temporary green light
  119. Philly school district’s lack of transparency frustrates families
  120. Bullying motivates many parents to home-school, attorney says
  121. Philadelphia City Council gambles to fund schools
  122. PA Supreme Court pushes forward charter school’s lawsuit against Philly
  123. Feds consider joining school choice game
  124. Florida’s new school choice law likely to spark others
  125. California teacher reform lawsuit sparks copycat, more likely to come
  126. School choice is popular — when parents know about it
  127. What can private schools learn from charters?


Mary was formerly a national education reporter for Watchdog.org.