Both of my sons like to be part of the team, but they thrive at different sports. My older son is in his second year on the basketball team, perfecting his rebounding skills. Meanwhile, my younger son has discovered that he loves soccer, especially scoring goals for his team. I couldn't be prouder of them both.
As a parent, I know that not every sport is right for my children – or anyone else's. By the same token, neither is any one school right for all children.
While Pennsylvania families have plenty of choices when it comes to finding their child's favorite sport, they have far too few choices when it comes to finding the school that is best for their child. As a result, many children are getting academically benched rather than finding their educational dream team.
Research at the state and federal levels shows the severity of the problem. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, nearly half of schools reporting test results are not meeting the commonwealth's adequacy level. That leaves more than a million children in schools that aren't giving them the instruction they need to succeed.
Low-income children suffer disproportionately. The Nation's Report Card found that 40 percent of low-income Pennsylvania fourth graders are struggling to read at basic level.
This isn't the fault of teachers any more than coaches are at fault if a child has unique challenges that prevent him from thriving at a particular sport. Even when a school is working for most children, it almost certainly is not the best school for all children.
Giving families more freedom can help improve outcomes for all children. Policymakers in Pennsylvania and across the nation are doing just that through popular reforms that allow children to attend schools that meet their individual needs, whether that be a charter, private, or technical school, or some other nontraditional option.
These reforms have high voter approval; more than two-thirds of Americans support letting parents customize educational options according to the needs of their children. More important, these reforms are proving successful for children.
For instance, charter schools – which are public schools with less regulation but higher accountability – allow teachers and administrators to innovate and tailor their instruction according to the needs of their students. It's no wonder that five of the top seven schools in America last year were charter schools.
Pennsylvania and other states have also created tax-credit scholarship programs to fund innovative public school programs and help families afford private school tuition. These programs give tax credits to businesses that donate to organizations that fund scholarships.
Tens of thousands of Pennsylvania children have received scholarships thanks to generous donations, but hundreds of thousands more are eligible and don't have access to funding.
One reform that could empower all families is education savings accounts, which let parents use their children's portion of state educational funding to pay for school supplies, tutoring, textbooks, private-school tuition, and other educational expenses. Pennsylvania lawmakers have debated ESAs, but no bill has moved forward in Harrisburg.
Letting families choose the education that is best for their children isn't a right or left issue any more than choosing a particular sport is a partisan issue. Educational freedom is about empowering families with educational options that are best for each child. Pennsylvania is on the right track, but we have much further to go.
No child should have to stand on the sidelines, and no child should have to struggle academically because the parents couldn't afford the right school. It's time to help all Pennsylvania children get off the bench and succeed. Let's play ball.