Opinion: Education Innovation Needed Now More Than Ever

back-to-school

Have you ever taken time to appreciate your local grocery store?

Standing in the checkout line at Wegmans last week, I noted my selections — chorizo, milk, Cheerios, sushi. The gentleman ahead of me chose tomatoes, mushrooms and beer. The lady behind — Ezekiel bread and almond butter. Each of us purchased wildly different foods based on our needs.

Each of us walked out satisfied.

How could one store meet such diverse requirements? Competition motivates businesses to cater to customers. I could have gone to Walmart, Aldi or Kroger instead. Or had groceries delivered via Instacart. Or ordered meals through a subscription box.

Free-market innovation has put food and grocery options on the cutting edge in America. Sadly, our public education system is anything but.

Our schools are mostly uniform, residentially assigned and government run. Some 82 percent of students attend their zoned district school. When the pandemic hit, this system showed its age. The education bureaucracy was achingly slow to adapt, stifling the efforts of ambitious teachers.

Now, for the first time in decades, parents everywhere are motivated to seek education alternatives. A nationwide poll conducted in June showed 58 percent of parents are “considering changing their child’s education.”

Some parents want their kids to physically return to a school building. Others are concerned about coronavirus infection and want their kids to be educated remotely. Many can’t afford to forsake their jobs and stay at home if schools remain closed. We have an obligation to help them.

Teachers also have diverse needs. Some are anxious to return to the classroom. Others are vulnerable to COVID-19 and can’t risk exposure. They deserve options as well.

Educational wants and needs are as pluralistic as the foods we put on the table. And with 32 million sets of parents in the United States, choice and flexibility are paramount. But stakeholders in “the system” are offering one-size solutions.

Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, has threatened safety strikes if union demands aren’t met. Another teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, issued a Hans Gruber-esque list of conditions for reopening, including Medicare for all, defunding the police, a wealth tax and banning charter schools. Other unions have signed similar demands that exclude education alternatives in favor of the old system.

Under their approach, grocery stores would have a single aisle, and you’d be compelled by law to shop there. There’s a better way to meet parents’ and students’ needs: school choice.

Programs like tax credit scholarships and education scholarship accounts empower families to choose the education options that fit their needs. They help parents afford to look beyond the government-run system to improve the lives of kids — and teachers, too.

Because of the coronavirus, schools are seeking smaller classes to limit potential virus transmission. Allowing parents to use education dollars for tutoring, private or parochial school — or proven online education programs — would naturally shrink class sizes and make schooling safer for teachers and students alike.

States like Oklahoma and South Carolina are taking steps to put parents in the driver’s seat of their children’s educations. New Hampshire has directed a part of federal CARES Act funds to scholarship programs. Pennsylvania lawmakers are similarly proposing to ensure parents can afford to get kids back on track.

Parents, can you imagine making a list for your child’s education — just as you do for your groceries — and having the funding to get what you need? Teachers, you could have more freedom to teach when, where and how you want.

To serve families’ education needs during and after this crisis, we must promote competition and innovation. Teachers unions fighting for the old system will have to adapt. Or get out of the way.

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