A symbol or an idea can stand as a sign of our values and aspirations. 

In Philadelphia, the Declaration of Independence stands to remind us of our founders’ fight for liberty, and the self-determination that liberty promises.

Sadly, in education, we are failing to live up to that value. Self-determination is not directed by our founding principles when it comes to education in this state. It is instead subject to the Pennsylvania’s School Code — created in 1949, roughly one decade before Chubby Checker did “The Twist”.

Our legislative twist in fate, which was similarly codified in states across the country, has entrapped millions nationally and throughout our Commonwealth within a rigid system. Families and communities have been rendered helpless as the law disproportionately constrains those raised without the financial ability to access to education equity.

The monopoly created within the public K-12 education system makes our nation vulnerable to intellectual atrophy by holding educational and talent enrichment within an outdated machine that’s unwilling to evolve. Without incorporating the option of school choice for all Americans, we risk a self-inflicted national weakening. 

Prior to the pandemic, Philadelphia and other urban centers were already struggling with the stubborn academic achievement gaps between Americans of varying backgrounds.  Frustrations over unequal opportunities have spilled onto the streets from Atlanta to Portland. And thanks to the school shutdowns, it is feared that some 3 million American children have “fallen off the grid,” according to Bellwether Education Partners, due to the failures of the education monopoly. School districts from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh remain closed to in-person instruction, a duration now approaching 2 full semesters.

This new year, 2021, is a crossroads moment for education in America, both during the remainder of this pandemic but also as we look to the future. 

Americans from the Black electorate participating in the 2020 Democratic primaries to a significant majority of right-leaning individuals extol the need to expand school choice for the most disadvantaged students. This singular desire embraces a diverse range of solutions, from making more high-quality charter schools available to increasing the viability of tax-credit scholarships that foster education equity and good corporate citizenry. Families clamor on waiting lists, hoping to transfer their children from failing district schools into schools that foster a heightened sense of purpose, esteem, and holistic success for kids. Impatiently, they continue to push back against the arbitrary enrollment caps, funding caps, and choice caps that are advanced by the political agendas and lobbying dollars of the existing monopoly.  

The monopoly created within the public K-12 education system makes our nation vulnerable to intellectual atrophy by holding educational and talent enrichment within an outdated machine that’s unwilling to evolve.

The desires of these voters and families speaks to the value of school choice in reducing the life altering occurrences of juvenile crime, teen parenthood, and chronic unemployment, according to a University of Arkansas study. The generational heartaches of these communities have caused a yearning for opportunities that are traditionally considered only for the “lucky ones” — the ones who truly enjoy the self-determination America promises. 

No longer should educational self-determination in the greatest nation on earth come from the luck of the draw of birth, of winning a lottery for charter school admission, or getting a scholarship award for tuition to a non-public school.  There should never be a child living within the shadow of Old Glory who is forced to sacrifice the ability to improve their lot in life because of the legacy of community divisions or the whims of pay-to-play political rapscallions.

President Biden’s inaugural speech begged for a return to unity. Yet, the search for unity will never fully begin in America without a full-fledged support of school choice. This commitment must come from President Biden as well as political leaders throughout the states, including Pennsylvania. They must realize that America will be more ready to unify when all can celebrate the promise of self-determination without our leaders, like Pennsylvania’s governor, snuffing out the voices of choice within education. It is too shrieking a dissonance to ignore.

To support America’s future and to support our children’s self-determination, we must all take the opportunity afforded by National School Choice Week 2021 to bolster the academic successes offered by school choice. To support rebuilding our communities, we must encourage the experience of varied perspectives that comes thanks to school choice. To support renewed belief in the American Dream, we must support bridges like school choice that uplift others towards opportunity and civic equality. 

To ensure a future where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all continues, self-determination cannot be a trait that wanes in the schoolyards of our nation.  Support for school choice is like the Declaration of Independence; it is a sign that we truly believe that systems of inequality can finally twist away harmlessly in the wind.

Lenny McAllister is CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools and a Senior Fellow at Commonwealth Foundation

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