Earlier this week, I read an article about the alarming decline in student achievement in public schools nationally since the COVID-19 pandemic. The article notes how frustration with failing schools (many were failing long before the pandemic) is leading more parents to transfer to private schools, home study, or other educational options. The article was spot on, but something about the title, “Parents can leave the failing public school system,” bothered me.

Families should absolutely be able to choose the school that works best for their child, and their tax dollars should follow them to their school of choice. School choice not only benefits individual kids and their families, but there’s a great deal of research showing that it also forces lagging schools to improve and become more responsive to those they serve.

Public schools get better when there’s competition. Not only do they get better for kids, but they also get better for teachers. It allows teachers to do what they do best through multiple employment options and even as teacher entrepreneurs. In times when teachers are frustrated and leaving the profession entirely, creating shortages in public schools across the nation, competition in public schools is a great way to make teaching more flexible and attractive.

That’s why the title of the article frustrated me. The aim of school choice is not to abandon the kids who remain and shift attention to where our kids go. Many families don’t have access to school choice due to program rules, limited school capacity, or other factors. Even if access is improved through programs like education savings accounts (ESA’s), there will surely be a population of kids who remain in public schools that are struggling and have problems. As long as their doors remain open, someone has to care about making things better.

At Pelican, we care as much about the quality of public schools as we do about expanding school choice. We believe every school should be a great school. That’s why, as you might have read lately, we’ve had a lot to say about Louisiana’s K-12 public school accountability system. Where the data tell us kids aren’t being well served, we have to act. Where accountability scores and ratings don’t align with our expectations or reflect the true level of performance relative to that standard, we have to make corrections.

But the ultimate form of accountability is schools knowing that if concerns aren’t addressed and problems fixed, parents can easily switch to another form of schooling. Ideally, long before there’s an exit, there’s an active dialogue with school leaders at all levels – principals, superintendents, and school board members – about where they’re falling short and what needs to happen to grow and resolve concerns. Educational leaders need to hear our concerns directly and have an opportunity (and feel an obligation) to respond and improve. But if they don’t, they lose the privilege of educating our children. The information that informs those discussions comes from our system of objective measurement and reporting on student outcomes. This includes LEAP test scores, ACT scores, graduation rates, as well as other information that gets factored into school ratings.

In the end, it takes both a strong public school accountability system that is transparent about outcomes and holds high educational standards and a system that empowers families to act in the best interests of their children. We owe it to our kids to make sure we’re having these conversations and doing the hard work of implementing higher standards across the board.  That’s what’s needed for all our kids.