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Opinion Transform Virginia’s education system to create opportunities for all

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in Richmond in January. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
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Nick Freitas, a Republican, represents Culpeper in the Virginia House of Delegates. Jacob Fish is deputy director of Americans for Prosperity-Virginia.

At first glance, Virginia seems to offer a wide array of choices for educating our students. We have traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, home schooling and learning pods.

But for all the variety, these options are not equally available to every family.

They should be. Students should not be deprived of the education that is best for them because of their Zip code or their parents’ financial situation.

We need to update our education system so every student can discover, develop and apply their unique talents.

Virginia school districts can set their own open-enrollment policies, giving some students more options. And the state offers a scholarship program for students with family incomes below 300 percent of the federal poverty level and students with special needs.

But this program has its limits. Barely more than one-third of Virginia students are eligible for these scholarships, and only 0.3 percent use one. That leaves tens of thousands of others on the outside looking in.

And each of those students is unique, something for which these existing approaches don’t account. Students have different interests, abilities and learning styles. And their education should be customizable to reflect that reality.

Instead, we have a system that stresses conformity — that attempts to teach every kid in the same way, the same setting, the same curriculum — and expects these unique kids to succeed. It’s a futile expectation.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all system, parents and students need options.

Parents are best positioned to make education decisions for their children, and funding should follow students so that parents are empowered to choose the environment that meets those unique learning needs.

As Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) said in his first address to the General Assembly: “My message to parents is this. You have a fundamental right, enshrined in law by this General Assembly, to make decisions with regard to your child’s upbringing, education and care. And we will protect and reassert that right. Hear me clearly. When parents are empowered and engaged, a child’s life is enhanced.”

Education was a critical element in the governor’s election, and it will be critical to the success of our state. Lawmakers should heed the governor’s words.

In the recently ended 2022 legislative session, three bills were introduced that would have expanded education savings accounts (ESAs).

Dels. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) and David A. LaRock (R-Loudoun), who both sit on the Education Committee, and Phillip Scott (R-Spotsylvania) introduced measures to create ESA programs that would help pay for tuition, fees, textbooks, tutoring and other qualified expenses at a school of the parents’ choice, using a percentage of per-pupil state funds.

ESAs empower teachers and families to work together to find a learning environment that best fits each child and enables all to thrive.

These bills should be improved next session, especially by expanding eligibility for an ESA to all students, as opposed to limiting eligibility only to those whose families meet income requirements. We need to fund students rather than systems and fix what’s not working in K-12 education.

But there are even more opportunities for helping our kids get the kind of education that will set them up for success in life and inspire them to be lifelong learners.

Though limited open enrollment is available to some, enacting mandatory intradistrict and interdistrict open enrollment would expand opportunities for students by allowing them to attend any public school within and outside of their school district and empower families to find the setting that is right for their child no matter where they live.

By expanding access to diverse education opportunities outside the classroom, including apprenticeships and skill-based learning, students can gain a leg up on developing the talents necessary for success in whatever careers they eventually choose.

To many families’ disappointment, Virginia’s 2022 regular legislative session closed without passing much-needed transformative education reform. It should be a top priority in the 2023 legislative session to create opportunities that will help every Virginia kid discover multiple paths to their individual version of the American Dream. Let’s get started.

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