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School choice is also about listening to teachers and advocating for them

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NOTE: This column was published in the Clarion Ledger on January 26, 2020. You can read it on their site here.

 

Imagine working your entire life to land your dream job. After years dedicated to a college degree and certifications, you submit your resume to several companies and are delighted to learn that you’re a top prospect. You eagerly accept an offer from a struggling company that seems to value the talents you have to offer. You pick this company so you can leverage your unique, God-given abilities to make a difference.

But after a couple of years on the job, you lose that excitement. For some time, you’ve felt misunderstood, undervalued, underpaid, unheard and, above all, disrespected. Your company micromanages your every step, despite the fact that you were hired because of your education and ability to do the job. When you bring this up to your manager, he says his hands are tied by corporate. You contact corporate to make your case, and they tell you they’re only doing what the CEO and board of directors tell them to do. You have no outlets and no help. You begin to question if you made the right decision when you accepted the position which has now become a burden rather than a dream job.

Over the last few years, I’ve heard dozens of versions of this story from Mississippi public school teachers who feel dumped on, taken for granted, and like nothing more than test-preppers.

On January 1, Empower Mississippi celebrated six years as an organization, and as we look back, we see that we’ve laid a solid foundation of advocating for school choice. Our efforts haven’t been without growing pains and missteps, but they have been consistent — we firmly believe children are most likely to succeed when they’re matched with the best educational setting for them, so parents must be empowered to choose that setting.

But a lack of school choice isn’t the only broken part of our education system. We believe the root challenge in public education is that we’ve tried to mass-produce and standardize something that should be incredibly personal. Over the last few decades our public education system has shifted more and more control away from parents—yes—but also from classroom teachers, toward central offices, school boards, and bureaucrats in Jackson or Washington. So much so that the vast majority of decisions that impact a child’s education are made by distant people who will never meet that child or understand what makes him or her unique.

Since Empower Mississippi’s inception, we have unapologetically emphasized the role of parents in education because no one understands the needs of a child better than his or her parents. But after parents, teachers also play a critical role in shaping the educational experience of kids. Their daily, direct investment in students and dedication to shaping their minds and opportunities make them vastly important. Teachers ought to have greater freedom to realize their creative potential and serve students to the best of their ability. Yet they tell us they feel stripped of that ability to do what they love and are qualified to deliver in the wake of federal laws and state mandates that have over-emphasized testing and top-down control of the school day.

Departments of education often have an outsized role in making decisions about what’s best for students whom they have never even met. On the other hand, parents and teachers — those who are up close and personal with students on a daily basis — have immeasurable insight into the best ways to meet students’ needs. For Mississippi students – each with unique needs and abilities – to succeed, both parents and teachers should be empowered with the freest environment possible to create a path for each student to flourish.

If we were designing a system from scratch it would recognize the uniqueness of each child, and would make sure those closest to the kids, like parents and teachers, have the most influence over each child’s education.

Yes, we support a high-quality education for every student, and we know that different families will find that high-quality education in different settings. But our support for school choice should never be misunderstood as a position against public schools or public school teachers. We want every education option, including the local public school, to be a place both parents and teachers want to choose.

In this new decade, in addition to elevating parents’ voices, we are focused on listening to teacher voices and advocating for reforms that will benefit them and drive decisions to the local level. Teachers should be entrusted with the freedom and flexibilityto meet the needs of each student in their classroom. That is, after all, the reason they felt called to the job in the first place.

To celebrate all the great education options currently serving Mississippi students and the teachers who are changing lives, we invite you to join over 1,000 teachers, parents, and students at Mississippi’s National School Choice Week Celebration at our State Capitol this Tuesday, January 28, at 9:30 a.m. Let’s recognize our state’s achievements so far and look forward to a brighter future together!