- - Thursday, October 30, 2014

More than 300 million people live in the United States and not one of us is the same. So, why do bureaucrats in Washington and our state capitals insist on having a one-size-fits-all education system?

For some of us, it works great. I am a product of public schools – from kindergarten all the way through my time at the University of Wisconsin. But just because it worked for me, that does not mean it will work for everyone.

That is why states should be applauded for implementing and expanding school choice. After all, every student – no matter where they come from or what their background is – should have the opportunity to go to the school that best fits their needs and gives them the chance to succeed later in life.

Denisha Merriweather recently heralded the Florida tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students as the reason for her success in a Wall Street Journal column. Denisha had been held back in school twice by the time she got to the fourth grade. She said that D’s and F’s were normal and “learning became a nightmare.”

Everything turned around for her in sixth grade, though. She enrolled in a local private school in Jacksonville, Florida, with the help of the state’s scholarship program. Without it, Denisha said her family would not have been able to afford the $5,200 annual tuition.

At her new school, failing grades were out of the picture. Denisha had a newfound self-confidence and ended up graduating high school with honors. Today, she is a recent graduate of the University of West Florida, the first in her family to attend and finish college.

Since launching in 2001, Florida’s version of school choice has swelled to the largest tax-credit scholarship program in the country. Nearly 60,000 students enrolled in the 2013-14 school year. Much adoration should be given to the program because the Sunshine State leads the nation when it comes to fourth-grade reading proficiency for low-income students, but a new lawsuit puts the scholarship program in danger.

Why anyone would want to eliminate a program that is helping a state’s most vulnerable students is beyond me.

While Florida’s program is more than a decade old, North Carolina just launched its new school choice program. The voucher program’s first year was not without controversy, however. The state is facing legal challenges similar to those in Florida.

That has not stopped Khaliah Ellison, a single mother of three, from praising the program. The public schools in Ms. Ellison’s area were not a good fit for her children, and her second-oldest child, Mekhi, was especially struggling.

“Over the past few years he just wasn’t doing that well academically. There were so many students in his classroom,” she said in a recent article in the Charlotte Observer. “He wasn’t getting the attention he needed.”

North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program awards up to 2,400 vouchers to low-income families, and Mekhi was lucky enough to get one.

Ms. Ellison pointed out that her son is already reaping the benefits of his new school, all thanks to the state’s school choice program, which paid for most of the $5,670 annual tuition.

“The number of students in his class is about half and he is getting the attention he needs,” she said in the article. “You can tell in his demeanor and in his face, he is more confident.”

While private voucher and scholarship programs are helping students all across the country, it is important to remember that school choice encompasses so much more than private school options.

Wisconsin is a prime example of where public school choice is dramatically improving educational outcomes for students. Yes, Wisconsin is home to the nation’s first modern-day, private-school choice program – the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program – but the state offers so many other options, as well.

From virtual schools, to home schooling and charter schools, Wisconsin is at the forefront of educational choice. The state even expanded its private-school choice program statewide in the most recent legislative session.

One program that could be expanded to help even more students, however, is the Dairy State’s 2R independent charter schools. Most of the current 2R independent charter schools are in Milwaukee, and they educate nearly the same percentage of low-income students as the city’s traditional public schools.

The big difference between these public charter schools and Milwaukee Public Schools is the students’ educational attainment. The charter schools are considerably outperforming their traditional public school peers in reading and math proficiency and on Wisconsin’s school report cards.

Even though these public charter schools are outperforming their peers, the program has generally failed to expand outside of Milwaukee – leaving many students around the state stuck in a possibly failing local school district.

No child should be forced to attend a school that is not the right fit for him or her. Any type of educational option that can help students achieve at higher levels should be considered, and that is why instead of hindering school choice, policy makers should be embracing it.

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