California’s Public Schools Need More Choices and Flexibility
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California’s Public Schools Need More Choices and Flexibility

Students and parents seeking choices, flexibility, and tailored education options shouldn’t have to leave California to get them.

When the legislature recently passed the 2021-2022 state budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared, “With the largest surplus in California history, we’re using this once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an economic recovery that will leave nobody behind.”

Ironically, however, many Californians are leaving the state behind. For the first time in California’s history, the population is shrinking. Expensive housing prices, high state and local taxes, and the state’s overall high cost-of-living are the drivers generating the most headlines about people moving out of California. But for families with children, the state’s slow K-12 school reopening decisions may have also been a motivating factor in deciding to flee.

California’s K-12 enrollment declined by 160,000 students during the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2021, a survey of California voters conducted for the California Policy Center included a small subsample of parents with children in school. The poll found only 26 percent of parents said their kids were attending in-person school full-time and just 31 percent rated the job done by California’s public schools as “good” or “excellent.”

Is there a way for public schools to earn back their trust? An obvious start is for public schools to reopen for full in-person instruction this fall, as most currently plan to do. But that may no longer be enough.

This year, many students and parents got a taste of the benefits offered by homeschooling, learning pods, and private schools.  More families now see those as better long-term options than the one-size-fits-all educations public school districts offer.

Sixty-two percent of respondents to the survey agreed with the statement: “The pandemic has shown people that there are other ways to educate kids than through traditional public schools.” Fifty-four percent also said they would support a statewide ballot initiative to use public education revenues to fund education savings accounts (ESA)—which allow parents to use state education funds for public, private, charter, or parochial schools as well as tutoring and books. It is also important to note that this support was inversely proportional to income as low-income families were more attracted to expanded educational opportunities in the state. Sixty-four percent of those with household incomes below $40,000 supported the education savings accounts initiative, which was 18 percent higher than support from those with household incomes at and above $150,000.

This appetite for more flexible education in California reflects national trends. Homeschooling more than doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic and more than 30 states have introduced bills to start or expand educational choice in their legislative sessions this year.

California can make its public schools more attractive by mimicking innovative programs like Idaho’s Advanced Opportunities Program, which promotes greater flexibility and choice for families with kids in the traditional public school system. When an Idaho student gets to seventh grade, their family is provided with $4,125 to help customize that child’s education. For some students, this means adding summer or online classes to their course load. For others, it involves getting a professional certification or enrolling in career-centered classes and apprenticeships.

During the 2016-17 school year, the first official year of Idaho’s Advanced Opportunities Program, dual credit course enrollment (where high school students enroll in college classes) tripled and advanced placement (AP) exam participation doubled. And participation rates continued to increase over subsequent years. In 2019, Idaho’s state legislature expanded the program to allow for career and technical education.

The state’s students can now take courses in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) technologies, electrical, plumbing, emergency medical services, software development, and more—all while enrolled in their public schools.

To prevent more families from leaving California, and to try to win back the 160,000 students who have left public schools over the last year, the state should follow Idaho’s lead and move away from its one-size-fits-all K-12 education system. Students and parents seeking choices, flexibility, and tailored education options shouldn’t have to leave California to get them.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.