Focus on the Family

School Choice

by Jim Mhoon

Do not train children to learn by force or harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.

This is what the Lord says: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."
—Jeremiah 6:16

While we would like to see an increase in school choice nationwide, most parents throughout the United States can find some form of choice in their communities.

In an ideal world, we'd have clear-cut choices. Our children would maximize their learning under the best academics, would attend school without fear of physical harm, and would have their values affirmed.

Schools are just like the rest of the world, however; they're full of shades of gray. This article series will help you grasp some of the pros and cons of the various environments with the goal of assisting you in the selection process. First, let's talk about a few principles to keep in mind when evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each environment.

  1. Education is about much more than simply attaining knowledge. It is as much about how to learn as it is what to learn. Therefore, your choice of academic environment must teach students learning skills as well as deliver knowledge.
  2. Education is also about attainment of skills that will lead to success in all areas of life. Therefore, academic programs must either directly provide a varied experience or accommodate alternative experiences in some other setting. For example, speaking in front of a group of people is a valuable skill. A student can learn how to research, outline, and deliver a speech without ever interacting with other students. Delivering the speech, however, is no theoretical matter. The student needs to do so in front of a group in order to master the skill.
  3. Not all families have the same list of priorities pertaining to education. An environment that works well for one family may not work at all for another. The key is to understand your family priorities and your child's needs and then identify the school that will best fit each.

Public Neighborhood Schools

Pros and cons of public neighborhood schools

by Jim Mhoon

Public schools are best defined as government-funded schools, run by local school boards beholden to state board of education oversight. They are part of the government system that provides equal opportunity for education to all residents within district boundaries. As such, public schools are secular institutions and currently are limited in their ability to address the religious needs of their students.

Dr. Paul Hill from the University of Washington believes, "Public education is not defined by school boards that act as little legislatures, by categorical funding, by civil service employment of teachers, or by government monopoly. Public education rests on something deeper, a permanent American commitment to educating children by whatever means work"1.

Much of the criticism leveled at public schools today is well earned. Parents have many concerns about public school including physical safety, academic rigor, secularization, and even indoctrination to controversial subjects that often offend religious and moral beliefs.

It should be noted, however, that public schools are responsible for, and credited with, educating millions of Americans...people who read, write, do math, vote, and raise great kids. Furthermore, public schools are staffed by our neighbors, friends, siblings, spouses, church volunteers, and fellow citizens. These teachers are also among the most educated in our society and many of them report a true sense of calling to their field.

Under the category of public schools there are several variations:

Public Neighborhood Schools

Public schools used to be strictly defined by neighborhood schools that were assigned according to boundaries drawn up by the school board. Children were assigned a school according to their physical address. Most adults today grew up in this school environment. Personally, I have good memories of my public school experience and few complaints about the quality of the programs I encountered. I appreciated the diversity of the student body and enjoyed being part of the broader community.

Unfortunately, I know people who grew up in more urban environments who cringe at the thought of attending their neighborhood school. In some cases, neighborhood schools work exactly as intended; in others they fall way short of expectations. Neighborhood schools are still very common manifestations in public school districts, but not quite the monopolies of past generations.

Interestingly, neighborhood schools have actually been passive recipients of parental choice for many years. Fully 63 percent of Americans exercise some form of choice2. Some parents apply for an out-of-district permit in order to place their child in a particular school. Others choose to live within the defined boundaries of a neighborhood school with a good reputation. This is precisely why your zoned school has an effect on the value of your home. Schools with good reputations actually drive home prices up as parents compete for residences that guarantee placement in desirable schools.

Personally, we have found neighborhood schools to be a blessing for our circumstance. We have a son, Kyle, with special needs who requires significant accommodation. Private schools are unable to accommodate him. Our neighborhood schools found ways to work with Kyle and established an individual education plan (also known as an IEP) meant to set goals and create the best environment possible for his needs. IEPs may generate controversy, but they are honest attempts to make the very most of resources available for children that need special attention.

Pros of Neighborhood Schools

Cons of Neighborhood Schools

1Paul Hill, "What Is Public About Public Education," in T. Moe, ed., A Primer on America's Schools (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2001), p. 289
2Ibid, p. 249

Public Magnet Schools

The pros and cons of magnet schools

by Jim Mhoon

There have always been differences in the quality of schools both within districts and across districts. One of the more glaring examples in the U.S. history had its roots in segregation and resulted in persistent ethic and socioeconomic achievement gaps. The problem became so great (in some ways it still is) that in the 1960s the U.S. government required that students from segregated schools be bused into higher-performing schools.

The theory was that desegregated schools would normalize academically, and the schools previously populated mostly by lower socioeconomic students would achieve similar academic standing as those populated by middle-class students. "Busing" was terribly unpopular in America, and it led in part to the development of magnet schools.

Originally, magnets were conceived as academically attractive programs that would entice enrollment across ethnic lines, with the hope that parents would opt to send their children to a school populated by various racial groups. Many magnet programs still have ethnic diversity as their primary selection criteria. Magnets have also been established around other interests that have little to do with ethnic diversity and now appeal to interests such as arts or technology.

The net effect is programs that appeal to special interests within the student population and education philosophies that are often different from more traditional schools. Some districts have magnet programs that provide customized services for children with special needs — for example, the deaf and hard of hearing, those who speak English as a second language, and the gifted and talented.

Other districts have become so "magnetized" that virtually every school in the district has a distinct flavor, and they operate under an open-enrollment structure in which every family has the right and is encouraged to select a school based upon their preference. There are still neighborhood boundaries, but they exist as a default rather than as a primary filter.

I once lived in a city where every school in the district had a unique angle on education, offering programs as varied as advanced placement, technology, International Baccalaureate, music, drama, architecture, and hands-on science. Families were encouraged to select programs across the district based upon their own preferences.

Pros of Magnet Schools

Cons of Magnet Schools

Public Charter Schools

Pros and cons of charter schools

by Jim Mhoon

Charter schools (also known as community schools) are government-financed schools operated by nongovernmental entities. Typically, they share two distinguishing traits: (1) The entity operating the school is independent of any school district and is not a governmental agency, and (2) they do not serve students within specific attendance boundaries. State charters serve students throughout the state, and district charters serve students throughout the district and allow interdistrict transfers as they are available.

Charter schools are similar to magnet schools in that they seek to appeal to families on the basis of: (1) a unique educational approach, such as classical education or expedition learning; (2) the special needs of families in the community, such as Edison schools, which target low achieving segments of a community or virtual home-based schools such as K-12; and (3) a particular discipline, such as art, humanities, science, or technology.

Charter schools can be small, independent operations or part of a large education company. Some of them are for-profit institutions and some are run by the government.

Like other public schools, charters cannot discriminate based upon race or religion and they must comply with laws restricting religious instruction. However, they seek to distinguish themselves from the regular district model by providing a specialized approach to education. They are also managed separately from the local district with their own board of directors.

Charter schools are similar to magnet programs in that they are opt-in programs populated by students who have chosen to attend the school. Generally, this is a positive indicator of parental involvement. It is vital for parents to understand the charter of a given school and its approach to education. For example, some charter schools seek to serve students who have not managed well in traditional environments. For a high-achieving student, such an environment may not be suitable. Others seek to provide an advanced curriculum or focus on experiential learning or appeal to certain learning styles.

The effectiveness of charter schools is a subject of debate, with some claiming that charters have not demonstrated adequate improvement over more traditional models. Proponents suggest that many charters purposefully appeal to the neediest students.

Meanwhile, some programs are setting new standards in education and out-performing all but the very best, advanced curriculum models. As with other public programs, the true test is whether the particular program in consideration meets the standards you have. You should expect good academics, good parent involvement and direction, qualified teachers, and adequate facilities.

Pros of Charter Schools

Cons of Charter Schools

Private Schools

Pros and cons of private schools

by Jim Mhoon

Private schools are both elective and selective. They are elective in that all students must choose to attend, but they are selective in that only those who can afford to pay are able to attend. Often the elective process narrows student candidates to those who have a particular affinity for an institution, religious denomination, community, or future goal.

As such, many private school students have at least some shared interest. The student body is also made up of children whose families have the awareness and wherewithal to provide for a private school experience. Thus, they can be perceived as being economically advantaged.

That is not necessarily the case, however; many private schools are dependent upon student recruitment and have a variety of programs to assist families. Private-school administrators often encourage families to inquire even if they don't believe the school is affordable. There is often financial aid or other assistance available for motivated families.

Some private schools are highly creative in their development of curriculum while others utilize curriculum developed for the general market, or "third-party" curriculum. Teacher credentials vary widely as they are not bound by state standards. Essentially, private schools are more beholden to the marketplace, not external standards.

In this sense, it is important to investigate the voluntary accountability oversight schools submit themselves to. Look for accrediting bodies and regional organizations such as the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, or private accrediting bodies such as the Association of Christian Schools International. These associations require member schools to meet minimum standards in terms of academic achievement, testing, teacher credentials, curriculum, and facilities.

One of the main advantages of private schools is their freedom to include religious instruction as part of their elective and required curriculum. Many private schools have behavioral standards to which students must ascribe. Others require a statement of faith or other sign of allegiance to a particular set of beliefs. Many private Christian schools place a special emphasis on community service, mission trips, and calling from God, and even have as a goal to raise up future Christian leaders. Even so, it is important to remember that enrolling children in a private school is no substitute for parent involvement and diligence.

The term "private school" may conjure images of expensive, high-class, college preparatory boarding schools, and such institutions do exist. Most private schools in the United States, however, are small, modest operations with limited facilities. While there are secular private schools, the overwhelming majority are affiliated with religious institutions. Some private schools are part of a large, well-organized structure such as Catholic or Lutheran schools; others are small, independent operations tied only to a local church. Typically, schools associated with denominational structures (for example, Catholic schools) are more predictable than independent schools, whose curriculum, accreditation, and academic oversight may vary widely.

Private schools are governed by their own set of rules. These rules may be established by a local board or may be imposed from the national organization or denomination. It is sometimes difficult to tell which set of operational rules — national or local — hold the advantage. On one hand, local control means nimble response to the community need; on the other hand, association with strong national organizations ensures that the school is meeting standards set for it by the national body.

Things to Look for in Private Schools

  1. Associations and accreditations. Unless the administration is exceptionally skilled, it is usually important for a private school to have applied for and been accepted into a governing set of standards and achieved some sort of accreditation. That is the seal of approval that says the school meets certain standards of financial accountability, academic rigor, rules of ethics, and so on.
  2. Curriculum. Some schools employ teachers who are trained and skilled educators. They are able to create and deploy effective curriculum and tie that curriculum to state or governing association standards. Other schools simply adopt a curriculum created by third-party curriculum providers and implement them in their system.
  3. Academic accountability. Public schools are required to use standardized tests to demonstrate student competence in core subjects. Many private schools choose to use the same tests in order to compare their program to public schools, while others select an independent testing norm that measures student achievement but is difficult to compare to state standards. Still others choose to not use standardized tests at all. When evaluating a school that does not use standardized tests, get data on SAT or ACT scores and compare them with surrounding public schools. College placement statistics are also good indicators of academic suitability.
  4. Denomination or religious affiliation. You'll want to ensure that the religious viewpoint of the school is consistent with your personal beliefs.

Pros of Private Schools

Cons of Private Schools

Home Schools

Pros and cons of home schools

by Jim Mhoon

Home schooling has a long tradition in the United States. Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, and other greats were all educated at home. While a relative outsider to the scene, home schooling has managed to carve out an important niche and establish itself as a credible, viable, and effective means to educate children.

Earning the legal right to home school was a hard-fought battle in some states, and continues to be challenged. Most states, however, now recognize the right of parents to educate their children at home. There are legal variations relating to state accountability requirements and meeting state education standards. Parents of home schooled high school students also need to consider college recognition and acceptance standards.

Home school is difficult to define because it takes on so many different forms. Some home school families literally create their own curriculum and find nontraditional means to educate their children that range from creative to out-and-out strange. Other home school families purchase and use services or packaged curriculums that are highly regimented and structured. Still others use blends of various techniques including the ones already mentioned.

Above all other education methods, home schooling requires the most from parents. Their involvement is key to success and is often intense and challenging. Commitment level, available time, and teaching skills are significant factors to be considered before parents begin home schooling. Today's marketplace provides unprecedented support for home schoolers, making this option more feasible than ever.

One of the major objections to home schooling is a supposed lack of socialization of children. This objection is based on the observation that children who spend most of their time at home do not have daily interaction with their peers like their institutional counterparts. Supporters of home school point out that there are many relational alternatives to six-hour days at school and they have taken action to intentionally provide their students with activities that include most, if not all, of the options available to students in more traditional schools.

Today, home schooled children participate in athletic teams, academic competition, band, and the like. They also enjoy freedom to learn through experience and real-life interaction such as travel, field trips, and internships. Progressive home school practices have all but debunked the socialization objection.

Generally, in academics home schooled students compare favorably to their public- and private-schooled peers. But the variance between students can be great. The key is a skilled parent-teacher who is up to the task and who utilizes available resources to maximize the opportunities.

In the past, home school families were on their own and had to create or discover curriculum and material for instruction. Many families still opt for a homegrown approach, but there are many excellent home school organizations that provide curriculum, teacher training, parent and student support, and even cooperative learning programs. Some you can research include Alpha Omega Publishers, Sonlight Curriculum, K-12, A Beka, and Bob Jones Home School for curriculum, and for local home school associations for direct connection and support.

Home school families have complete latitude to provide religious instructions without limitation. Successful families have a good plan, good support, and a passion for their work. The keys are intentionality and sufficient knowledge to lead a long-term education process.

Trends in home school include the following options:

  1. Home school/public-school blends. Many public schools allow students to enroll in selected classes. Typically, these are math and science classes that require higher skilled teachers or special facilities.
  2. Home school/private-school blends. Many private schools offer similar services as public schools. These services may include offering home school families with a la carte classes that require more teacher expertise, a group environment, or perhaps lab facilities.

    Other private schools utilize a home school blend in order to expand student population without adding facilities. An emerging program called University Model Schools, for example, is an intentional home school/private school blend that specifically assigns education curriculum to both the home and classroom. This approach is intended to create a college-like setting that uses both self-study and classroom instruction.
  3. Home school associations. These are best described as cooperatives in which parents collaborate to provide education collectively to their children. The variations in associations include parents teaching a particular discipline to a group of students and pooling their time and talents to organize field trips, sports leagues, music programs, and other group events. Essentially, they strive to provide the services normally found in an institutional school.

    Often these home school associations use church facilities. For example, on most Thursday mornings if you walk into New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, you'll find yourself in the middle of a throng of elementary-age children. They will be working on art projects, writing stories, participating in plays, moving from classroom to classroom, and engaging in multiple learning activities. You are not walking into a private school; you have arrived on the day when the local home school association meets. It is a chance for collaboration and fun and learning on a major scale. Think of it as an educational swap meet.
  4. Virtual Schools. Many children are being taught at home via computer and with curriculum that is controlled out of a central facility. They have instructors, assignments, and other activities much like a classroom setting, but their classroom is in their home. Parent involvement in such programs is significant, but not as much as other home school methods. Virtual schools can be private schools or even charter schools providing services into the home. The common denominators that define virtual schools are the central importance of the computer as the learning and interaction tool, and the centralized control of assignments by the virtual school operator.
  5. Home school curriculum providers. There was a time when homes choolers were left on their own to create a curriculum. Some still opt to do it themselves, but it's no longer necessary. There is a variety of for-profit and not-for-profit companies that develop curriculum for use by home schooling families. The approaches are wide-ranging. Typically, these programs provide all of the material and instructions a family needs to create a robust home education program.

Pros of Home Schooling

Cons of Home Schooling

Making Your Choice

A word about public schools versus private schools or home schools

by Jim Mhoon

When considering the academic environment for your child, consider your ultimate goal for his or her life and place the decisions you are making in perspective. From a spiritual perspective, ask yourself questions such as these:

It is easy to insulate our families from any real relationships outside of the body of Christ, and that sets a dangerous precedent. Whatever you do, don't throw your child to the wolves in hostile public or private schools (if that's what you have in your area), but don't isolate your child in a Christian setting either. Parents need to provide a healthy balance between protecting their children and providing them safe contact with those who don't embrace Christianity.

Next Steps and Related Information

Additional information on school choice

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