Friday, March 24, 2023

You’ll Love School Choice When You Need It

It’s not uncommon to see an online policy debate get personal, which usually means things have turned ugly. But in taking the less-traveled high road, one recent exchange demonstrated in a tangible way the power of educational freedom.

What began as a single tweet by Dr. Corey DeAngelis, ended with over $2,000 raised for a student in need of expensive testing that her local district school couldn’t provide. 

Andy Mitchell, an education employee from New York, repeatedly pushed back on DeAngelis, attempting to refute a widely accepted body of research that highlights the benefits of school choice. Mitchell took issue with the usage of a particular table DeAngelis cited, a table that listed the outcomes of several studies on education vouchers. Mitchell subsequently wrote a review of all of the studies, citing what he regarded as fundamental flaws in each one.

For the next several days, the sparring continued until the level of interaction had grown uncomfortable. DeAngelis ultimately blocked Mitchell from his Twitter account.

Shortly thereafter, DeAngelis learned of an online fundraiser that Mitchell had started for his daughter. She required a special evaluation to better diagnose and treat her ongoing learning disabilities. Her local school district could not, or would not, provide the testing, compelling the family to make an outside plea for financial help. DeAngelis donated $100 to the fundraiser himself, then posted the link to his social media accounts encouraging his friends to donate as well. 

Within 24 hours of the donation, Mitchell’s goal of $2,200 was met. His daughter will get the testing she needs. The family expressed their gratitude several times on social media for the dozens of donors who contributed at DeAngelis’ encouragement.

It’s an outcome that should cheer the heart of any good-willed person, whatever their position on school funding or educational choice. But the real-life scenario also highlights an often overlooked truth: Universal solutions are rarely actually universally effective. Mitchell, an ardent supporter of government schools, has an immediate family member whose needs aren’t being met by the dominant default educational system. 

Families around the country are in similar situations. Their needs are not being adequately addressed and they have no options.  Traci Lambert has struggled mightily to find a good fit for her 13-year-old daughter, who happens to have been born with Down syndrome. The Traverse City, Mich., mom has long been Katie’s advocate, fighting for her to get an education that acknowledges her true capacity to achieve. Different public schools and programs, where she’s been enrolled through the years, have not delivered.

Frustrated, Traci eventually removed her from school, and decided to pay for months of private tutoring, which she says has helped Katie make more progress in her ability to read and write on her own than any of her prior schooling. Traci wants to see her daughter return to a traditional, inclusive classroom setting where she can learn and thrive alongside her peers. But for the time being, breaking out of the standard education model has jump started Katie’s learning.

Families facing similar learning challenges in places like Arizona and Florida have found help from education savings accounts. In these states, families of children with special learning needs can access state funds they choose to pay for the instruction and other services that works for them. Along with most other states, Michigan and New York don’t offer this option, which forces desperate parents to make personal financial sacrifices or resign themselves to an inadequate solution. 

They may have to start an online fundraiser and turn to families and friends for help, or even to people that until recently they only knew through a serious ongoing debate they had on Twitter. 

How uplifting to see champions for educational choice make their case not just with persuasive words, but with compassion and their pocketbooks. This strategy probably can’t solve the educational challenges facing most families, but it certainly shines the light on a better way to help make sure all children have an opportunity to succeed.

Matthew Nielsen is chairman of the Arizona-based Educational Freedom Institute. Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich.

Matthew Nielsen and Ben DeGrow
Matthew Nielsen is chairman of the Arizona-based Educational Freedom Institute. Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich.


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