LOONEY: Why New Jersey Families Need School Choice

The Right School Can Transform a Child’s Life and Future

What works well for some doesn’t work well for others. That maxim holds true in many fields, but particularly in education. Because each child has unique needs, interests and skills, they deserve personalized educational options that work best for them. This National School Choice Week, we should remember how school choice can help ensure that all students receive a quality education.

While New Jersey’s educational establishment endlessly promotes the state’s generally good ranking compared to the other 49 states, their public relations effort masks important problems. First, doing well in American public education doesn’t mean doing well by world standards. At all. In the most recent international PISA math test, United States’ students tied for 39th in the world. And in America’s own NAEP test, only 47% of New Jersey 8th graders tested proficient in reading. But the larger problem is how New Jersey’s better public schools hide real disparities for low-income families and students of color. Within that 47% 8th grade reading proficiency, for example, is 59% for white students, 28% for Hispanic students and only 24% for African-American students. These gaps have not meaningfully changed since 2003. And only 2 percent of 8th graders in the school lunch program, an indicator of low family income, achieved advanced levels of achievement in reading.

While these school choice efforts represent a good start, other states have gone much further.

School choice works to close these gaps by empowering parents and families to select the best educational option available to them — ensuring no child remains stuck in a failing school. We already have a few successful programs. Some New Jersey districts permit open enrollment, where students attend public schools outside their neighborhood boundaries. New Jersey also offers magnet schools offering specialized curricula, online education through the New Jersey Virtual School, and charter schools—publicly funded institutions with greater autonomy and accountability for educational outcomes. But while these school choice efforts represent a good start, other states have gone much further, by creating opportunity scholarship programs and education tax credits that allow students to attend the schools of their choice. These types of scholarship programs would particularly help parents of special needs children. In many cases, these parents have great difficulty finding the right learning environment to help their child succeed. And many are viciously bullied, while complaints to administrators go ignored.

For special needs parents, who already incur sizable costs associated with care for their children, an opportunity scholarship or education tax credit program would serve as a godsend. Parents could access educational options and resources in the private sector that may otherwise go underutilized—because the families who need those special services can’t afford them.

As part of the more than 40,000 events nationwide during National School Choice Week, which runs from January 20-26, we will host a discussion about what additional support special needs students require, if our current laws are delivering, and what could help their parents going forward. Our School Choice for Special Needs Conference, on Wednesday, January 23, will highlight the ways in which an expansion of school choice here in New Jersey could help thousands of children with disabilities across the Garden State.

Whether children with special needs, students of color, or children trapped in struggling schools–all children and their families deserve the benefits of school choice — the hope and opportunity that come with seeing a child in the best learning environment possible. School choice, and the right school, can literally transform a child’s life and future. Let’s use National School Choice Week as an opportunity to bring that transformation to more New Jersey families.

Steve Looney

Trustee and Treasurer of Excellent Education for Everyone
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