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New guides push school choice for parents, families

Shelby County parents have abundant options when deciding where to send their children to school, but there are few, if any, resources to help them navigate the often intimidating process.

Understanding school choice in Memphis, which is home to the majority of the state’s lowest-performing schools, can require copious amounts of research that some choice advocates on the state and local level are hoping they can simplify for parents. But their help comes with a slant away from traditional public schools.

Earlier this month, the Beacon Center of Tennessee released a statewide school choice booklet, which the center’s CEO says will give parents access to information about private, charter, homeschool and virtual school options. Traditional public schools are not included in the booklet. The Beacon Center, which is based in Nashville, is a free-market think-tank that advocates for unfettered school choice, limited government, and “individual liberty.”

The organization held a press conference  Oct. 8 to launch the release of the booklet, which was co-sponsored by several other pro-school choice organizations: Black Alliance for Educational Options, or BAEO,  Agudath Israel, Education Freedom Alliance, Public SchoolChoiceOptions.org, Tennessee Charter School Center and Tennessee Federation for Children.

“We’re in agreement that parents need a school choice booklet, and this is the first resource that is statewide,” said Jennifer Littlejohn, state director of BAEO.

Approximately 83,000 children in Tennessee attend a failing school, according to the Beacon Center’s presentation.

The booklet has sparked some controversy because of its pointed exclusion of traditional public schools.

“(It) covers both private and public options available to Tennessee families,” said Justin Owen, CEO Beacon Center of Tennessee. “At this time, (public schools) districts differ so greatly in the menu of options that it would be difficult to include in a statewide booklet, so our focus was to provide the general choice options currently available.”

The absence of traditional public schools in the booklet concerns the Tennessee Education Association.

“Our stance is that Tennessee children deserve great public schools and diverting money through vouchers to a private or charter school strips our public schools,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association, which represents the majority of the state’s public school teachers. “We find the booklet to be misleading and doesn’t fully inform parents. Public schools should have been mentioned.”

An upcoming online choice guide for Memphis will include traditional public schools along with private, charter and virtual options. This effort is being led by Memphis parent Ginger Spickler, who also also serves as communications director  for Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust, or MOST, an organization that helps low-income families pay for private schooling.

Spickler said her website will be similar to a STL City Schools, which offers parents explainers on the four types of schools in St. Louis — regular public, public magnet, public charter, and private — and the steps to researching local schools.  It’s being funded by a local philanthropist “with a strong interest in education,” Spickler said. She said the philanthropist wanted to remain anonymous. Spickler didn’t know when the site will launch.

Simply producing guides for parents won’t help them gain access to the best educational options for their children, said Cardell Orrin, director of the Memphis chapter of Stand for Children, a national parent organizing group.

“It’s one thing to have the tool, but parents should know how to use it and why they should,” Orrin said.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

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