- - Thursday, February 21, 2013

When people think of school choice, they think of parents selecting new, rigorous, challenging schools for their children.

For some parents, though, the need for choice isn’t just about academics. It’s about the safety — both physical and emotional — of their children.

Through my work, I’ve met parents who fall into every camp — parents who yearn for more academically challenging schools for their children, parents who want to remove their children from persistently violent schools and parents who recognize that without switching schools for their kids, their children will be emotionally tortured — bullied — by mean kids.

Robust school choice can help children escape bullying, and it’s time for people who are engaged in our national discussion about this issue to embrace meaningful, bold and unrestrained school choice for all families.

Parents should have the option to send their children to a great traditional public school, a public charter school, a private school, a magnet school or an online academy. The bottom line is this: No children should ever be forced to attend schools that don’t work for them. Even if a school works for 99 percent of the students attending it, if it doesn’t work for your child — you deserve options.

When parents can select the right schools for their children, they can put their children in a caring, nurturing, safer environment. They can make it clear to school administrators that they want their children looked after, treated with respect and dignity. In the process, as schools begin competing for children, administrators will be forced to address the concerns of parents more quickly on issues that directly impact the well-being of young people, like bullying or violence.

School choice doesn’t just help kids who are being bullied. It can actually provide a lifeline for kids who are, for whatever reason, mistreating others. I’ve heard from families about how taking a seemingly violent child out of one school and providing him or her individualized attention in another environment can change a child’s life and encourage kindness and compassion.

Is school choice the only solution to bullying or to school violence? No. Still, it is one solution.

Ruthanne Johnson’s story is what made me think about this issue anew, and made me realize that bullying isn’t just the latest Hollywood issue du jour.

Ruthanne spoke recently at National School Choice Week’s whistle-stop tour event in Toledo, Ohio. She spoke eloquently and poignantly about how she was bullied by a cadre of mean kids. Ruthanne is a sweet, beautiful girl with a loving family. She’s outgoing and friendly. For some reason, she was targeted.

My heart broke for Ruthanne and her mom. In reality, she and her family don’t need or want pity. They’re tackling this challenge — the need to end bullying and empower children to stand up for themselves — together. Ruthanne took her experience and created a nonprofit, the Be You Foundation, to educate and inspire other children who are facing tough times at school, and to speak out in favor of educational choice for families.

Aside from their own unique courage and ability to turn around a challenging situation, what kept hope alive for Ruthanne’s family was the fact that they had sway over their school, and their school’s administration, because of Ohio’s robust and diverse school choice policies. Ruthanne’s parents could have switched schools for her, but her situation got better — because her parents had leverage.

Now, Ruthanne is speaking out, empowering kids and families, and supporting an expansion of school choice for children. As Ruthanne says, it’s hard to “be you” if you’re in a school that doesn’t work for you. I couldn’t agree more.

There are hundreds of thousands of children who are bullied in our country, who aren’t treated by their classmates with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves.

When parents have greater power over the schools their children attend, kids have hope. With empowered parents come empowered children like Ruthanne, who are willing to take obstacles, overcome them and empower others. For the sake of our future, America needs more Ruthanne Johnsons. We need more adults who are willing to recognize that robust school choice can provide an essential solution to a crisis that plagues many families. We have no greater calling.

Andrew Campanella is president of National School Choice Week.

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