Parent navigators are worth the investment for school choice supporters

Editor’s note: This commentary from Travis Pillow, an innovation fellow and senior writer at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, appeared Monday on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s website.

From 2015 to 2018, the start of spring meant I could expect to hear from parents across Florida. At the time, I worked for Step Up Students, the Florida-based organization that administers the nation’s largest education scholarship (i.e., voucher) program. My job was not in customer service. I was the editor of a blog focused on school choice issues.

But because my name, phone number, and email address were prominently displayed on the website, desperate parents would track me down with questions about where to enroll their students for the next school year:

“My daughter receives a voucher for special education students. I think she needs a hearing aid, but the district won’t prioritize her for an evaluation because we attend a private school.”

“I hear charter schools don’t take kids like mine. Is that true?”

“Can you recommend a school in the Jacksonville area for my son who has autism?”

I would try my best to help—often forwarding parents along to a colleague with relevant expertise.

The experience seared two facts into my brain. First, for parents across Florida, having meaningful choices in where their children learn has been life changing. Second, they often feel alone navigating this growing array of options.

An under-appreciated provision contained in recent draft legislation in Florida would make history by codifying a new role in our state’s educational ecosystem to solve that problem: “choice navigators.”

As its bill number implies, HB1 is a top priority of House Speaker Paul Renner. It’s making headlines because it would dramatically expand educational options, converting the state’s existing school choice scholarship programs into education savings accounts that, within five years, would be available to all students.

Recently, school choice advocates—nationally and in Florida—have dramatically increased their ambitions. Legislatures have shifted away from small-bore programs available to targeted populations, like low-income families or students with disabilities, toward sweeping programs that offer scholarships to all, or nearly all, students in their states.

And by expanding choice via education savings accounts, policymakers are opening the door to an “a la carte” approach to education. Parents can choose schools for their kids—but they can also choose tutoring programs, enrichment activities, summer camps, and more.

In the new choice-for-all landscape, navigators will play a critical role ensuring all students—not just the privileged—are able to take advantage of the options these new and expanded programs make available.

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BY Special to NextSteps