How technology can help parents use education choice programs

Editor’s note: This commentary from Brandon Detweiler and Robert Bellafiore, head of studio and research manager, respectively, at Lincoln Network, comes to reimaginED via reimaginED guest blogger Dan Lips. Lincoln Network describes itself as “a boutique think tank that works with policymakers and tech innovators to promote market-oriented ideas to strengthen American innovation.”

 You can listen to a podcast about the importance of technology and infrastructure in making school choice possible from Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill here.

In 2023, Iowa and Utah have already enacted new education savings account programs that will help thousands of families take control of their children’s education. These states follow Arizona and West Virginia in enacting broadly available ESA programs in recent years.

There’s more to come. According to EdChoice, lawmakers in more than 20 states are considering similar measures to give parents greater power to choose in education. There’s good reason to be optimistic that many more parents across the country will have new options in the coming years.

But as advocates know, establishing these promising programs is just the first step. For students to benefit, parents need to learn about their new options and use them. In the past, the work of educating parents about new school choice options and helping them take advantage of their options has fallen to community groups, grassroots leaders, and parent activists.

These are still invaluable, but today, they can be complemented by new technology and parental choice programs to help parents provide a better education for their children. Technology is allowing parents and the public to use government data to understand what their public schools are spending on their children’s education and better understand the possibilities that school choice creates.

Our organization, Lincoln Network, and our team of engineers and software developers have built two platforms with these goals in mind: Schoolahoop and Project Nickel. Schoolahoop helps parents identify new schools and scholarship opportunities for their children, while Project Nickel allows the public to analyze what public schools spend on a per-student basis across the country.

Schoolahoop is a school choice tool allowing parents to compare and find local schools. Once a parent has discovered a new school, Schoolahoop shares the contact information for the school’s admissions office and helps parents discover scholarship programs they qualify for, opening up new educational opportunities.

Other features include easy browsing of the latest COVID-19 safety protocols at each school; indicators of which schools are best at remote learning; and integrated commute times for walking, biking, or driving. Most recently, we’ve added the ability for parents to discover available scholarship programs in a given state, as well as the ability for any organization to embed a version of Schoolahoop’s school finder application on its own website within minutes.

This kind of program is essential for addressing a common question directed at advocates of school choice: if parents are granted more options, how will they be able to determine which one is best?

It’s a fair point: busy parents hardly have the time to inspect a dozen schools and investigate all the differences among them. The beauty of Schoolahoop is that it compiles all the most important information in one place, making it much easier for parents to identify the school that fits their unique needs and find scholarships that allow them to enroll their children in previously unattainable schools.

Since launching in Texas, Schoolahoop has expanded to Florida, Arizona, the Kansas City metro area, and now Wisconsin, and we’re always working on expansion into new states so that more parents can make an informed choice for their kids’ education.

Our second program, Project Nickel, similarly aims to educate parents about some of the most important financial facts at different schools. It should go without saying that the public––including not just parents, but also journalists and policymakers—deserves to know what public schools spend. But too often, this isn’t the case.

Finding out something as fundamental as a public school’s average spending per student can be a challenge, with parents left wondering what exactly those “public” funds are going towards. Since the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have been required to report each school’s per-student expenditure, but even now, it can be challenging for parents to find this information or know what to do with it.

Project Nickel solves the problem by compiling the data on per-pupil expenditure for every public school in the country, in one place. Just having easy access to the facts is crucial to helping parents understand what public schools are spending and consider if those funds could be put to better use.

There remains widespread confusion on this topic. For example, a 2022 survey by EdChoice found that Americans think public schools spend about $5,000 per student; in fact, the real amount is roughly three times as much.

It’s no wonder people have the wrong impression, when getting clear information on school spending is so difficult. Project Nickel aims to correct these kinds of misunderstandings, so that parents can make better-informed decisions.

To be sure, choosing a good school isn’t just a matter of having the right information or using the right website; we also need the right policies in place so that parents are able to choose a school, rather than being stuck with one picked by the government. But technology can still play an important role by giving parents the information they need.

Both efforts—getting the right policies and developing the right technology to help parents—will be essential for ensuring that kids can get the best education.

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BY Special to NextSteps