Parental involvement key to expanding school choice in Minnesota

As we reflect on the past year, 2011 will be viewed as an unprecedented year for school choice in our nation. Since January, eight new school choice programs have sprung up around the nation and 11 existing programs have been expanded.

“School choice” is a term that often gets bantered about, but at its essence it is simply a common sense idea that gives every parent the power and freedom to choose their children’s education.

Today, the unfortunate fact is that the quality of schooling is based on the value and location of a family’s residence. School choice gives parents the freedom to choose a school based on its quality and their child’s needs, not their home address.

Most people can’t afford to pay twice for education, once in taxes and once in private school tuition. School choice gives parents financial power by letting them use public funds set aside for education to send their children to a traditional public, charter, private or home school. School choice forces all schools — public and private — to offer the best education possible in order to recruit and retain students.

Taking action

Reflecting on successful school choice programs of 2011, there is a common element that contributed to the final outcome — a network of active, mobilized school parents that helped successfully expand school choice. Together, they informed lawmakers how expanding school choice would help their children achieve their maximum potential. Through rallies, letters, emails, telephone calls and public forums; their collective voices were heard.

After studying the successful parent choice campaigns in other states and in light of recent gains in parental choice legislation in our Legislature, the Minnesota Catholic Conference is forming a statewide parent advocacy network.

In recent weeks, MCC has been meeting with Catholic school administrators across the state to inform them of the benefits of mobilizing a parent network to advocate for Catholic schools at the state Legislature and U.S. Congress.

In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated, “In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.  It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good.”

The purpose of this program is to inform, train and mobilize Catholic school parents to be proactive regarding public policy that impacts Catholic school students, families and educators.

Each Catholic school will be invited to establish a parent advocacy position within the school community. Many schools are considering incorporating the parent advocacy position onto the educational advisory committee or home and school association.

Through this program, Catholic school parents will be trained in strategies and techniques to influence public officials regarding school choice legislation. For example, parent advocates will have access to training sessions and resources to assist them in speaking and writing to lawmakers, testifying before legislative committees, setting up candidate forums and district meetings with local senators and representatives, and sharing information about issues of concern for Catholic schools.

Trained parent advocates will disseminate information and action alerts from MCC to members of their school community with the objective of persuading lawmakers to pass school choice legislation that accords all families access to their school of choice.

By building a trusting relationship with their local representative and senator, parent advocates provide a human dimension to the lawmaking process. A timely, compelling telephone call or email message from as few as 10 constituents can influence the vote of a lawmaker.

Hopefully, Minnesota will soon add its name to the list of states to add education tax credits and scholarships for low-income students to attend the school of their choice as a result of a concerted effort by lawmakers, advocates, educators and activated parents who demand a full array of quality school choice options for their children.

Peter Noll is education director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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