The most interesting comment I heard at this week’s American Federation for Children conference in Washington, D.C., came from Ed Kirby, who heads up projects at the Walton Family Foundation. After listening to GreatSchools CEO Bill Jackson and me talk about the information parents need to make good schooling choices, Ed said how rare it was to hear education reformers discuss improving the demand side of K-12 education. We tend to focus almost exclusively on improving schools and teachers (i.e., the suppliers), Ed remarked, and we ignore enhancing the capacity of parents to make good choices.
This is an important insight. In most sectors of our society we rely on consumers to inform and drive improvements in products and services, but that’s not true in publicly funded K-12 education. United States automakers didn’t invest in high quality small cars until American consumers started buying small cars from Japanese automakers. Microsoft is now investing heavily in online services because its customers are increasingly purchasing online services. The collective wisdom of consumers is the most valuable asset in our country, and yet we ignore this asset in K-12 education and then wonder why productivity in publicly funded education has remained stagnant.
Tenure reform, merit pay, increased funding, and more school choice will not significantly improve student learning if we don’t if give parents access to the information and support they need to make good choices. Ed is correct. Well informed parental empowerment is a necessary condition for improving K-12 education.
Mr. Kirby makes an excellent point. While not neglecting the issue of supply, more reformers do need to focus on stimulating and increasing the demand side of quality education. That’s why for the past three and a half years the Independence Institute has hosted and operated the School Choice for Kids (SCFK) website: http://www.SchoolChoiceforKids.org.
The site contains information on all schools in Colorado; a user-friendly feature that allows parents to search across district lines for public (including charter) schools based on dozens of categories; a how-to guide to navigate Colorado’s open enrollment process; information on virtual schools, home schooling and preschools; a parent-friendly glossary of many key education terms; and more. We use events, mailings, radio appearances and more to advertise the site to parents, especially in low-income and Hispanic communities. (The site is available both in English and in Spanish.) Similar sites have been attempted, come and gone, but our site continues to reach thousands of families each year.
We agree wholeheartedly that “Well informed parental empowerment is a necessary condition for improving K-12 education,” and strive to put that into action here in Colorado. We believe SCFK is a critical part of the long-term struggle to promote school choice and education reform, and hope that groups in other states might follow suit.