School Choice Stress: The Pressure on Kindergarten Families

In theory, I agree with the idea of “school choice.” If parents have strong feelings about their child attending a certain school, I think school choice makes sense. But for the rest of our community, I think the school choice movement is creating a feeling more like school choice STRESS for families entering kindergarten.

As a preschool teacher, I first noticed the school choice stress during fall conferences last year while talking with two wonderful parents. We were celebrating their child’s progress and talking about our shared goals. It was a great conversation. Near the end, the mom’s smile faded and her face grew deeply concerned. She mentioned feeling worried about choosing the right school for kindergarten. (Mind you, it was October 2016 and the boy won’t go to kindergarten until 2018!) With great love, this mom and dad talked about the pressure of this important decision. They looked stressed and overwhelmed!

Listening to their worries made me feel sad. First, I believe their child will be successful wherever he goes to kindergarten. Second, his home school is my school–a place with fabulous kindergarten teachers and a wonderful Leader in Me culture. I know this family will make a great choice for kindergarten in 2018, and I hope they choose my school. But I wonder: Are kindergarten families feeling stressed instead of empowered by their school choice decision?

I’ve never been a huge fan of the school choice movement because I think it implies that local schools are inadequate and should not be trusted. This worries me because I believe in public school, and I think it’s a good thing when children attend school with peers from their neighborhood. Additionally, I think it’s important for the community to work together to support local public schools. If families can simply go elsewhere, it excuses them from investing time and energy into making their local school great.

This spring, a nearby charter school started recruiting kids from my neighborhood. I received a flier in the mail that said: Give your child a private school quality education for free. The statement was like a slap in the face. Why were they suggesting that private school is better than public school? After all, charters ARE public schools! Their flier advertised that all their students read in kindergarten. I checked them out online. Sure, they had videos of a couple kids reading. It wasn’t better than kindergarten students at my school. I also read they are a “back to basics” traditional school. Yuck. As a special education teacher, it made me wonder if they are willing to accommodate diverse learners. I shrugged it off and felt grateful to work for an innovative public school that is committed to meeting the needs of all kids without exception.

About a month later, a parent emailed me saying that her child would attend this exact charter school next year. I sent a positive response asking her to keep me updated. Secretly, I was a bit worried. I struggled whether it was my place to share my concerns because I think families are entitled to their own school choice and they know best. A few days later, she sent a sad email saying the school rejected her son because he “wouldn’t be a fit.” I thought my teacher heart was going to break! I was mad at the school for rejecting an awesome kid. Worse, I felt sad the family had been denied their “school choice.” This is not how school choice should work. Charter schools should not make families think they are better than other public schools and then reject families that apply. (For those who don’t know, charters can choose who to admit and reject based on the rules of their charter.)

This summer, I met a family who had a bad bullying experience at a charter school. Their solution for next year? Homeschooling! I asked if they had considered the nearby, non-charter public school (and I still hope they will!). She said they were going to research all the options, but felt homeschooling was their best option to protect their daughter. I wondered what might have happened if their daughter had attended kindergarten at one of my district’s schools last year. I guess we’ll never know. For this family, their first experience in a charter public school was not favorable, so they turned away from public schools altogether.

Looking back at this year, I know at least three families who were negatively affected by school choice in the kindergarten year. Here’s what I’d like to propose instead: Let’s encourage kindergarten families in our community to try their local, non-charter public school first. We have certified teachers (which some charters don’t), carefully chosen curriculum, character programs that discourage bullying, and accommodations to reach diverse learners. School choice should be a back-up plan if the local public school does not meet the needs of the child. Let’s take the school choice stress off kindergarten families and speak up about the best school choice of all: their neighborhood public school.

NOTE: To explore an opposing argument supporting school choice, check out this recent blog from Sandy Merz. For past blogs I’ve written about school choice, check out this blog about how school choice is damaging public schools and/or this blog sharing my concerns about special education evaluations for families accepting ESA Scholarships (one avenue for school choice in AZ).

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Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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