When students are treated as pawns and not as people whose potential it is our responsibility to invest in, children suffer. I recognize this from my own education experience, which is far too typical of far too many students in my home state of Illinois and across the country.
I was born and raised in Sussex County, Virginia, a rural county in the south-central part of the state. Through the sacrifice of my parents and a generous community member who provided a scholarship, I attended private schools for my first through fifth grade years.
My sixth grade year, even with the scholarship assistance, my parents could no longer afford the cost of private school, so I switched to our local public school. While my parents wanted my siblings and me to have placement tests to ensure we were in grades that met our abilities, the school denied us the test, citing a rule that the test could not be given to residents who changed schools within the county. This lack of testing left me bored for the next few years, performing above average, but not engaged in the material I had already mastered.
Finally, during my junior year of high school, a teacher gave me information about a summer computer class at a nearby community college, suggesting that I might enjoy it. Did I ever! This summer class was tremendously fun. I learned BASIC programming and started developing a statistics program for my high school football coach. A math teacher, who had once caught me sleeping in class, now asked me to teach her how to use a PC and how to integrate it into her classroom.
Noting my enthusiasm, the professors teaching the computer class provided me with information on a community college program that allowed high school seniors to attend college and transfer their English and math credits back to their high school. I jumped at the chance.
There was only one problem: My high school refused to send my transcripts to the college. Finally, late in the summer, I went to my high school and sat in the counselor’s office for more than three hours, refusing to leave until I was provided a copy of my transcripts. I immediately took them to the college and finalized the process of enrolling and skipping my senior year of high school.
At the time, I didn’t understand why my school would work to prevent me from excelling and extending my learning. Now I do. Too often, mechanisms like placement tests and transcripts are used as attempts to keep students in an education system as long as possible, regardless of whether it is working well for them. Too often, students are just a dollar figure to a school. The longer I attended my local public school, the longer they would receive money from the state.
When I moved from Virginia to Illinois, I was saddened to find the same deleterious dynamic in the education system here. Whether it is in Illinois or rural Virginia, kids are getting the short end of the stick as bureaucracy and teachers unions govern the education system—not children’s interests or abilities.
This National School Choice Week is a fitting time to remember that students are not funding units or widgets to be churned out to fit the system. Students are individuals with unique gifts and interests. Our state, and individual schools themselves, should be striving to ensure every child has access to the best educational opportunities, whether they fit into a traditional mold or not. With the right educational opportunities, students can excel and make an unimaginable impact on society.