Thursday, January 31, 2013

Elizabeth Robinson: Public school choice: A personal story

  Alabama is a beautiful state with many attractions, both in its natural beauty and in the slower pace of living our hospitable people prefer.

  While our drawls and small towns are a quaint reminder of our heritage, the refusal of state policymakers to implement the educational reforms necessary to make our schools more successful and our children more prepared for life after their formal education are definite black marks on our state’s reputation.

  Despite below average standardized test scores, troubling graduation rates, and other indications of weak performance, leaders in Alabama have been obviously reluctant to join the majority of the country. Why is the status quo of low achievement, failing schools, and political games accepted by us year after year?

  Choice in public education is a good thing; it helps those of us with learning styles that differ from our peers find an educational niche and it gives parents with children limited to failing schools a viable alternative. When deciding on a church family you have many options: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, etc. And shopping centers offer a wide variety of clothing and eating options, depending on your budget and taste. It is, as they say, a free country.

  Exhibit A: yours truly.

  Homeschooled until the age of nine, I was the lucky recipient of one-on-one instruction in not only reading, math, history, and science, but also in the art of raising chickens, the process of growing, harvesting, threshing, grinding and baking wheat into bread. When a subject caught my attention I wasn’t limited to a fifty minute class about it, I was allowed to obsess over it and memorize every detail. The whole world was my classroom, and everyone I met was my teacher.

  Following a move to a more rural part of the state that didn’t offer the same variety of “umbrella organizations” for homeschooling families, I began attending a relatively small public school. The close-knit town and school wide focus on patriotism and character made my five years in a more traditional public school setting pleasant and interesting, but its dearth of higher-level challenges and opportunities in high school led me to consider a daring option: moving away from home at the age of fifteen to attend one of Alabama’s two public boarding schools.

  I settled on the Alabama School of Math and Science (ASMS) in Mobile to finish the last three years of my secondary education, and it was an incredible experience. Not only was I able to enter college as a sophomore due to the variety of Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors classes I took, I became more independent, more confident, and infinitely more prepared for my post-secondary career than I would have been otherwise.

  ASMS is an amazing opportunity for the 250 students who are able to attend each year, but what about those who seek advanced educational opportunities and don’t quite make the cut, or don’t want to move upwards of six hours away from home at such a young age?

  What about those students who are mired in a failing school or school district and whose families don’t have the resources to provide tuition to one of Alabama’s excellent private elementary, middle, or high schools?

  Currently, these students are told “Too bad, you’re stuck. Sorry.” Many are left without an opportunity to a quality education.

  I, a first-hand beneficiary of school choice, believe it is time for Alabama to finally change that. And we can.

  Many of Alabama’s neighbors in the southeast have embraced charter schools, voucher programs, and tax credit scholarship programs, but our policymakers have refused to consider reforms. Alabama continues to be near the very bottom in many measures of academic success.

  The next session of the Alabama Legislature begins February 5th. This means the next three months of the session will provide the only chance this year for Alabama to seize a needed opportunity for our next generation of citizens.

  Public school choice can throw wide the doors of opportunity for thousands of Alabama’s children who do not learn best by sitting in a classroom for seven hours a day, for the students who crave a challenge, and for the parents of kids stuck in failing schools who desperately want to provide a better life for their daughters and sons.

  Contact your State Senators and House members, and let them know that you are tired of these opportunities being denied to our students. Parents and youth in Alabama need education options and they need them now.

  About the author: Elizabeth Robinson is a Policy Analyst and Grant Coordinator for the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

  This article was published by the Alabama Policy Institute.

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