Everyone likes choices, especially when thinking about our kids and their education. What parent doesn’t want their child to graduate from high school with multiple opportunities to consider? More choices for students while they are in school results in a well-rounded education, which means more choices for students when they leave school. To that end, maybe we should begin to think of educational “choice” as something to invest in within our schools, instead of among our schools.

In Oklahoma, we typically hear the phrase “school choice” in the context of types of schools, and parents have several from which to choose. A range of publicly funded education models exist in our state in the form of traditional neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, language immersion schools, enterprise schools, conversion schools, virtual schools and blended schools. Open and emergency transfer laws allow students to move among public school districts if necessary.

Oklahoma is also one of only 18 states that has multiple programs that allow public funds to subsidize private school tuition through vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. Every year since 2010 legislation has been introduced or passed to expand these programs. Well-funded and consistently present around the Capitol, these privatization initiatives are often promoted through a conversation around parent choice.

However, “choice” means different things for different people.

For many public school parents, “choice” doesn’t mean they want to transfer their child to a private school or enroll in a school directed by profits. Choice means a course catalog full of interesting classes taught by qualified and appropriately compensated teachers. Choice means having a variety of quality extra-curricular and co-curricular activities. Choice means integrated learning and programs for students with special needs. Choice means having robust, academic pathways for older students and an engaging school day which includes art, music and physical education for younger ones.

Public education is quite different than it was even 15 years ago. Parents and students want flexibility to customize their learning experience. They want opportunities for their children to earn college credit through concurrent enrollment and advanced coursework or participate in STEM and technical programs through partnerships with Oklahoma’s Career Tech network. They want the ability to graduate high school with an industry or trade certification, or gain real-world knowledge through internships and externships. These are all excellent choices parents want and all children deserve.

Why does choice within public schools matter? Why not just provide parents with the opportunity to shop for the alternative they want? Because those important alternatives belong to every child, not just the ones blessed with involved parents and sufficient family time and financial resources to go shopping for schools. And that’s the kind of true choice that can only be provided within a robust, healthy public school system.

The Oklahoma Constitution requires the Legislature to “establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children in the state may be educated.” Shouldn’t our education policies and budget decisions prioritize investing in the choices within those schools?

Two years ago the narrative about Oklahoma education changed when we invested in teacher pay. And while the past two years has us off to a great start, we can’t stop now. A decade of budget cuts eliminated many choices for public school students, and it will take intentional budgeting to restore them. To be a top 10 state we must continue the investment in our classrooms, our students and expanding the choices available within our public schools.

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Melissa Abdo is an education advocate and serves on the Jenks Board of Education. She is also a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces by community advisory board members appear in this space most weeks.

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