Homeschooling, charter schools, private and magnet schools, online learning, open enrollment and more were celebrated last Friday as National School Choice Week kicked off in Arizona with speakers, performances and balloons at Gilbert’s Eduprize School.
Across the country, groups will put on more than 3,500 events – from rallies and celebrations to town hall meetings and public discussions – all centering on the idea of choice in education.
The national celebration began later that night at Phoenix Convention Center, while the Arizona kickoff was held with U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, state Superintendent John Huppenthal, Gilbert Mayor John Lewis and more Friday morning at Gilbert’s Eduprize School.
“This is dead center for school choice in the country, right here,” Flake told the students, parents and community members in attendance. “Let me tell you how fortunate you are to have a school like this, to have teachers and administrators who know what teaching is for.”
The event included students from Gilbert High School presenting the flags and children from Mesa’s STEP UP School and Eduprize dancing.
Former NFL kicker Nick Lowery offered words of encouragement to the student to follow their dreams.
“What separates the great people in life? It’s the ability to bring into focus what you care about,” he told them.
The National School Choice Week event honored Eduprize co-founder and teacher JoAnna Curtis during the Phoenix celebration.
School choice takes different forms across the country, from open enrollment in public school districts – notably a child’s ability to attend a school outside his or her neighborhood boundary – to the growth of charter schools options, to homeschooling or tax credits and vouchers that can be used to fund private school tuition.
Arizona is home to some of the most noted legislation that’s allowed school choice opportunities to grow, said National School Choice Week President Andrew Campanella.
“Arizona has really been a pioneer in providing families with options, whether it was the creation of a robust and long-lasting public charter school law that has yielded fantastic results to the school choice programs,” Campanella said. “Arizona has really led the way for the rest of the country and created programs others have emulated.”
Arizona’s charter school law was passed in 1994. In the last 15 years, the state has also created and expanded private school tuition organization tax credits and corporate tax credits, as well as created educational savings accounts, voucher-like funds that can be used by some students to pay for private school tuition, educational services and more.
It was that charter school law that struck a chord with Eduprize’s Curtis when she was a teacher in Mesa and had nearly 40 students in class.
“I was just inspired by the concept that I wanted more voice. I wanted more ability to be able to affect students,” Curtis said.
Though she was a single mom with eight children, she said she had to follow through with her ideas.
”It was the craziest thing I could have done. I was so impassioned by the thought that I wanted to start a school where children’s needs are addressed. You can’t do that with 38 kids in the classroom,” she said.
Today, Curtis sits on the board for Eduprize and STEP UP schools and “teachers the teachers” on both campuses, she said.
School choice is opening doors for all types of learning, Campanella said. He estimates about one-fifth of America’s children attend a school or school environment chosen for them, including those who use open enrollment.
Campanella would like to see it expand even further.
“I think it should go to in the direction of families really being given a robust menu of options for their children, for them being able to send their kids to a great public school, a charter school, a private school, a magnet school, homeschooling,” he said. “I think we’re headed toward a more open model of education where parents can choose and have more choices and have a model of learning that embraces effective technology.”
Keasha Jackson said choice led to a change in attitude with her children, especially her 5 year old. This year, she moved them from a district school to STEP UP, a new charter school located in the former Washington Activity Center in Mesa.
“I’ve been raised around here. When they said it would be a school, I said, ‘We’re on board,’” she said.
Jackson drives her children about five miles each morning to school. Before this year, they weren’t “morning kids.”
“Now, they’re up” and ready to go on time, she said.
The Phoenix Convention Center event was expected to be the largest education reform event in the country, organizers said, with 7,200 participants.
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