Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: School options are the future of education

by Ron Iannone

Many of us would accept that education is a process of providing learning experiences for the growth and development of students. Does the present curriculum of today’s schools accomplish this goal? Corey DeAngelis, an educator, points out that today’s parents are looking for more school choices. He estimates more than 1.5 million students have left the current school system. Several thousand families are now homeschooling their children.

Each student has unique strengths, weaknesses and needs. I think about my own children’s education while we lived in Quincy, Mass. The school was based on an open-ended, integrated curriculum. They had available traditional classrooms with children sitting in rows, with the teacher standing in the front. In another part of the school, the seats were scattered here and there with learning stations surrounding the room as the teacher more or less guided instead of acting as a master controller. One of my children’s learning style fit the traditional classroom and another’s fit the open concept. In short, there is no curriculum model that fits all students.

If we have choices when we go to the grocery store, why couldn’t we have more choices in the education of our children? That is what’s happening now. More school choices are evolving. For instance, we have now have STEM: a curriculum that integrates the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The evidence has shown that America lags far behind the STEM disciplines throughout the world, and the idea is to make students more competitive in the world.

A while back, I wrote an article with my friend and colleague Pat Obenauf titled, “Toward Spirituality in Curriculum.” The basic premise was to give students a spiritual curriculum that awakens the spirit in students through intuitive, emotional, right-brain ways of thinking. At present, over 150 Waldorf schools have spirituality as its core.

In addition, many early school reform movements began in the 1960s. But many failed because very few had the financial backing of school districts, and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that an economist by the name of Milton Friedman said, “Education spending will be most effective if it relies on parental choice and private initiative — the building blocks of success throughout our society.”

Friedman laid the foundation for giving vouchers to parents so they could select the school they wanted their children to attend. Around the same time, there was a movement for school options, which eventually led to charter schools. Charter schools are more flexible and open to all students regardless of their zip code. Charters have their own private boards that oversee them, though they do receive tax funds from the local district. Christine Campbell, a senior research analyst, points out the following about charter schools: “Personally, I think this is a freedom that school leaders should have … that often traditional public schools may have their hands tied … .”

 When I’ve examined the test results of charter schools and other non-traditional schools, the results are largely not significant. However, both parents and students seem to be more satisfied with having choices for their education. And new charter schools are now being created with sound justice and cyber-based curriculums.

Many educators like myself, from the later 1960s and early 1970s, talked and wrote about alternative curriculum models, but our ideas soon faded because they lacked public support. James Redfield said we thought we had something great right around the corner. More specifically, he said, “We experimented, pretended, competed for attention raising much of what we did to the level of a superficial fad, and in the end, we were left disappointed.”

But now with school choice programs, magnet theme-oriented schools, online programs, STEM and other programs like Waldorf schools, we may be finally getting schools that match students’ abilities and potential. There are now more diverse school options to choose from for our children’s education.

The school option movement gives me hope and optimism for the future of education in America.

Ron Iannone is a WVU professor emeritus in the College of Education and Human Services and the founder of West Virginia Public Theater.