Back to School Should Mean Options for Parents

By Kyle Wingfield
School is restarting across Georgia, but the new year isn’t beginning the way many parents were hoping.
Mask mandates, thought to be a thing of the past, are being re-instituted not only in some cities but in even more school districts. The debate over what students should be taught has also been bubbling up, particularly regarding critical race theory and what — and how early — students should be learning about the thorny topic of race in America.
No matter what ultimately happens with these or other polarizing debates in any of our school districts, some people are bound to be disappointed. Some people are even bound to feel the resulting situation is untenable.
Some of them may be able to move their children to a different school, whether a public school in a different neighborhood or a private school or something else, but economics and experience tell us those numbers will be small. There just aren’t that many people who can afford to exercise choices about their children’s education.
That’s why, as debates central to our children’s education become more politicized — whether they should be or not — every parent deserves the ability to choose a different option for their child.
For a long time, we have been told the answer is instead for dissatisfied parents to get more involved with their children’s education. Volunteer at the school. Show up at the school board meeting. And to be sure, there hasn’t been enough parental involvement in schools over the years.
However, this is not the time for such platitudes. Just read the news: Parents are showing up – at school board meetings, in particular – in large numbers. Whether meetings are held online or in person, concerned parents have been showing up and making their opinions known.
Because there are so many parents with strong opinions on both sides of these contemporary issues, mere involvement isn’t the answer. There are no one-size-fits-all answers to questions like these, any more than there can be a one-size-fits-all approach to education.
School leaders can’t shy away from these debates, and ultimately they must decide one way or the other. Even declining to address these issues is the same thing as making a decision.
But not all school leaders will reach the same decisions. From public school to public school, traditional public school to public charter school, public school to private school, different people with different priorities will arrive at different conclusions.
Whether you’re for or against making all students wear masks, for or against teaching them critical race theory, it should be possible to find a school for your child where the decisions align with your family’s priorities and values. It should also be possible to move your child to that school, and it is unconscionable that many, if not most, Georgians can’t afford to do so.
Georgia can change that by joining other states and allowing education dollars to follow the child.
This state already has some experience with educational options, from public charter schools to vouchers for students with special needs, and parents who were able to exercise a different choice have tended to be very satisfied. Due to budget constraints or other limitations, however, these options simply aren’t available to all children. Georgia’s lawmakers should have changed that a long time ago, but they have another chance to do the right thing next year.
Our society has not been one content with having only one option in most areas of life in decades. We aren’t content with one option in education either; it’s just that other options aren’t within most people’s grasp.
It would be nice to say our society just shouldn’t be so fractured and polarized. Good luck changing that before today’s elementary students become tomorrow’s adults.
It would be better, easier and quicker simply to let families choose the schools that best fit their children’s needs, whatever those needs may be.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.