Commentary: A Family Illness Highlighted the Importance of Educational Freedom

FROM: The Tennessee Star

Sam Nienow –

Why is educational freedom a personal issue to me? Because 17 years ago, my big brother had cancer.

In 2002, when my brother was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, he received excellent care at Vanderbilt Medical Center. But the treatment and recovery still took months, and I spent much of that time with him.

Our dad worked at the GM plant in Spring Hill at the time, so my mom could afford to take the time off to homeschool me. A lot of families would not have been able to do what we did.

Today, too many kids in our state are living in difficult situations – a bad illness in the family, trying economic circumstances, or maybe constant bullying from classmates – but don’t have the options that I was blessed enough to have as a 10-year-old.

That’s what makes me so dedicated to the idea of educational freedom.

Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal for educations scholarship accounts (ESAs) would provide 5,000 students – with an additional 2,500 added every year — in low-performing schools a scholarship, based on the state’s per-student funding of about $7,300 year that they could use for tutoring, private school tuition, homeschool expenses or other educational purposes.

We appreciate Gov. Lee’s desire to help every kid get a great education. While we understand what this proposal aims to do, we believe bolder reforms are necessary to create an outcome that is a win for every family.

If educational freedom is a good idea for 5,000 students, it’s an even better idea for every student in Tennessee. Every student should have access to the education that works best for them.

If parents who have the means, as mine did, or live in the right ZIP code deserve a customized education that best meets their needs, can someone explain why every kid shouldn’t have those opportunities?

Can anyone explain to their teachers why they should have to live with a status quo that makes it difficult for families and educators to develop unique solutions that work for every student?

Increasingly, the answer to these questions is “no.” There is no good explanation.

In Mississippi, a 2016 survey found overwhelming support for the ESA program among participants.

In Florida, a recent poll conducted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education found that 78 percent of those surveyed said every parent should have the freedom to decide where their kids go to school.

Nationally, a January poll by Beck Research found strong support for ESAs.

We need to act now to empower teachers and families by providing them the freedom to innovate and create the optimal learning environment for every student. If we don’t, we risk falling behind our innovative neighbors.

We must look beyond the near horizon and fully commit to eliminating the barriers that keep every student from maximizing their opportunities.

For some, that might mean parents choosing to send their kids to the local public school. For others, it might mean a charter school that operates with greater freedom and autonomy. Or it could mean a magnet school, another type of public school that is designed with a greater focus on a special area of study such as math, science or the arts. Or it could mean a private school, or homeschooling, or some other option or combination that works best for each student.

Because that’s what’s most important: what will work best for each student.

To achieve this, we need to be bold. We need to be inclusive. That means lawmakers in Nashville must also be bold. They must reach beyond limited reforms that help a select few but restrict opportunity for too many. If we want to fully unlock every child’s potential, we need transformative change.

At a moment of crisis, my family had options, and it made all the difference in the world to us. Every Tennessee family deserves the same chance.

Sam Nienow is the director of grassroots operations at Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee. He lives in Franklin.

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