Deborah Hendrix

2020 — what a year! The past 12 months have seen countless changes, as the coronavirus pandemic has affected the health of millions of Americans, the economy, and our daily lives. But one thing the pandemic didn’t interrupt: Parents’ role as the primary providers, first teachers, and best advocates for their children. During this National School Choice Week, we should celebrate the way in which school choice helps parents meet their children’s needs, and take an honest look at ways our state education system needs to improve to be relevant in 2021’s “new normal.”

Colorado parents have had to juggle challenging new realities based on the coronavirus closures, and they have proved themselves survivors — from ensuring students participate in Zoom classes, to balancing work from home while caring for their children, to navigating changing decisions about school openings or closures, to staying in touch with teachers. These challenges have not been easy on many families and some of our most vulnerable students and families have suffered casualties from this pandemic.

School choice recognizes parents’ essential role, opening paths for parents to select the education that they think best meets their child’s needs, whether that is a neighborhood public or charter school, a private school, or homeschooling. This year has demonstrated the truth that no one cares more about a child than that child’s parents, who have worked tirelessly to keep their children learning in a chaotic, occasionally frightening environment. 

The pandemic has proved that school choice options should not be for just the privileged but for all families in the state of Colorado. While many individual schools and districts have worked hard to support their students, the education system statewide has been slow to respond to the crisis and unwilling to support all families — private and public. Children in poorer families have endured some of the greatest struggles during the pandemic due to logistical obstacles like unreliable internet access as well as insufficient support for alternative learning options. 

Kids are our most important asset. They deserve a new education normal — one that permits parents to choose from various affordable and effective options; one that doesn’t leave families high and dry when a pandemic strikes. They deserve high-quality online options, multiple public school options, transportation options and scholarships that make private schools more accessible. 

Concepts like microschools and learning pods — unknown to most families a year ago — show how parents can seek an educational experience customized to their students’ needs, and are responsive enough to adapt to changing circumstances. At its core, education is all about the children, giving their biggest advocates (their parents) the tools to make smart decisions benefiting both families and society as a whole. 

American families and educators celebrate National School Choice Week Jan. 24-30. This year’s events have reflected the new normal, as the realities of the pandemic have forced us to replace large, in-person gatherings with socially distanced activities. But as the past 12 months show, the message of school choice resonates more deeply than ever.

As students work to surmount learning obstacles we never faced during our childhoods — indeed, we never envisioned just a year ago — focusing on choice is a powerful way to create the best new education normal for Colorado children. We owe it to the next generation to give them every educational option possible to overcome the challenges we, and they, face.

Children are 10 percent of our population but 100 percent of our future. Let’s make sure it is a bright future for all children.

Deborah Hendrix is the executive director of Parents Challenge and is an advocate for parental choice in education. She has served as a board member for both traditional public and charter schools, leading efforts to provide all students with access to a quality education.