Every day, we make choices. We decide which health care provider is better and which store has what we need. We apply for a job that pays more and hire the best babysitter, landscaper, tutor, or accountant we can find.
Of course, the options we have are greatly influenced by our levels of income, where we live, and sometimes who we know. But we shop around to find the best deals despite that and look for what we want until we are satisfied.
This freedom to pursue happiness is foundational to our republic. Over and over, Americans have fought with weapons, words, and votes to retain the right to live according to their values if it harmed no one else. This ideal has shaped us as a nation and continues to be dear to our hearts.
Yet, for the past 150 years, we have increasingly given up freedom in one of the most crucial arenas: education.
In 2017, we find ourselves bound to schools by a zip code, only able to choose the location, the leadership, the teachers, and the curriculum we are most satisfied with if we have the financial means and the will to sacrifice one thing for another. Even then, that satisfaction is tainted when we consider how our hard-earned dollars are spent on education as a whole without our consent or input.
In the Age of the Yelp Review, we have even less information about what goes on in public schoolhouses. Every school and district receive a letter grade, but it’s not clear what that means for each child. Everyone accepts that children have different needs and different gifts, but bureaucracies continue to address students en masse and offer families only one option that may or may not serve them well, which is no choice at all. Many who are unhappy with their one option must learn to like it, and over time, all of us grow accustomed to this way of doing things. We forget that “When one cannot choose, one cannot aspire.”
Yet, despite this truly un-American system, there are some bright spots.
What happens when people want better choices but can’t seem to find them? We need only look to one woman in South Mississippi to find out.
Choice on the Coast
In Mississippi, students with dyslexia often have trouble finding the services they need in their district schools. Even though federal law mandates services, many frustrated families must look elsewhere for help.
On the coast, these families have found it in a petite energy named Cena Holifield. Cena is the Director of the Dyslexia Therapy Program at William Carey University. Seeing that many students with dyslexia were not receiving the appropriate services, she founded a school to serve students with dyslexia in 2008: The 3-D School in Petal. With the creation of the Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship in 2012 and the Special Needs ESA in 2015, tuition became more affordable and more families flooded to her school. Families from the coast were traveling up to 180 miles each day so their children could receive the educational services they needed. Some moved to Petal to be near the school.
This year, Cena expanded the 3-D concept to Ocean Springs to serve more students, and now even families from Louisiana are traveling to take advantage of the services offered there.
Choice in Mississippi
Cena’s story is a testimony to the ingenuity of people in unfavorable circumstances. This begs the question: instead of institutionalizing obstacles, why not give hard-working, passionate people all the room they need to invent the answers people seem to want?
Today, over 480,000 students attend district schools in Mississippi. Some of these students and their families are happy with their assigned school. Many are not.
In the past 5 years, 1,600 Mississippi children have enrolled in expanding school choice programs, including public charter schools, the Special Needs Education Scholarship Account, and the Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship, and every program with a cap on the seats available has a waiting list. These programs exist because parents needed more options, and they thrive because parents continue to want them.
The success of these programs requires us to rethink our current system of assigning schools to children from afar. Who knows these children best? Who is most invested in their growth and happiness? A bureaucracy cannot be as knowledgeable or as fierce an advocate as a parent who must face the consequences of their educational choices daily. Parents need freedom to continue looking for a setting that meets their child’s needs if their zoned district school cannot. Anything else is imprisonment.
Mississippi should continue to expand school choice because it is a measure of our commitment to enabling the pursuit of happiness for every citizen of our great state.
This column appeared in the Sun Herald on December 3, 2017.