THE WASHINGTON POST: ‘Opinion: The coronavirus shows that Virginians need real school choice’

Tina Ramirez lives in Chesterfield, Va. She is president of Hardwired Global, a human rights educational organization that trains teachers across the Middle East and Africa.

Virginia’s lawmakers are back in session, but they are ignoring the most pressing issue for parents: school reform.

Virginia students, who once carried backpacks and lunch pails every day, should carry their per-pupil funding, too. It’s an issue I’ve been fighting for and am honored to be working with Del. John J. McGuire III (R-Goochland) and others to make it a reality.

The commonwealth has a historic opportunity to meet the diverse educational needs of our children.

During the pandemic, nearly 400,000 Virginia students had no access to high-speed Internet, and 140,000 did not have a home computer. Without the ability to access online learning and their teachers, students are struggling to keep up — even if they were at grade level before.

Despite the commonwealth’s stellar academic reputation, wide achievement gaps exist for student groups that would benefit most from high-quality learning opportunities and improved outcomes.

Last year, more than a third of African American, Hispanic and lower-income students failed to pass the state’s exam in reading and math. In urban areas such as Richmond, more than half failed in reading and math. And that was before the coronavirus pandemic shut down classroom learning.

New research shows that the gap is widening among these groups and they may have lost as much as half of their academic progress during the lockdown.

But today’s lawmakers continue to push a one-size-fits-all approach to educationon our children. As parents, we know this doesn’t work.

Last month, local school boards hastily approved decisions dictating school closures and hybrid models for education despite parents’ objections. Where I live, the Chesterfield County school board overrode the wishes of 82 percent of parents asking for five-day in-person schooling, opting instead for a virtual learning model that has already failed our children.

As a single mother who, like most parents, has to work, I do not want my 5-year-old daughter staring at a computer screen for eight hours a day. Nor can I afford to stay home with her.

As a former teacher, I understand the value of education and made choices to prioritize that for my daughter. That’s why, last year, I exercised the most traditional form of “school choice” — I moved to a new neighborhood so that my daughter would be able to start kindergarten in one of the best school districts in the state.

Today, even that “choice” has been taken from parents who have sacrificed for their children.

Many lawmakers have forgotten that parents know best the specific needs of their children, and parents should be the ones making those decisions.

Meanwhile, too many families are defined by their Zip code and are stuck in schools that fail their children. Not all schools are good — no matter what the average test score says. Many “great” schools still leave behind too many of their students who might thrive in a different environment.

The affluent already have the option to send their kids to private schools. But the neediest students cannot seek options they cannot afford and are at risk of falling further behind.

Only when educational funds follow the student will parents have the ability to make the appropriate decisions for their children’s education.

Under Virginia’s equity funding model, the Standards of Quality (SOQ) dollars follow the student — into the school and district — to support their education.

Instead, the SOQ funds should follow the student directly to the accredited school or program of their parents’ choice. Similarly, lawmakers could authorize localities to allocate per-pupil funding to the parent to follow the student.

Imagine a “backpack” program that would give each child more than $10,000 to spend per school year. Their parents could choose what works for their child and make adjustments.

Currently, students have to jump through hoops just to switch schools within a district. And if the whole district’s options are inadequate, they are out of luck.

Imagine the possibilities for your child if you could search for the best school to meet their needs. Imagine what traditionally underfunded school districts could do to attract charter and private schools. As new schools compete for their dollars, their educational opportunities will increase.

Instead of further complicating the situation, the Virginia General Assembly should authorize localities to disperse state and local per-pupil education funds directly to the parents.

As an educator and parent, I know we can and should close the achievement gaps in Virginia’s schools if we let parents take charge of their children’s education.