Reviews | Transforming Virginia’s Education System to Create Opportunities for All

Placeholder while loading article actions

Nick Freitas, a Republican, represents Culpeper in the Virginia House of Delegates. Jacob Fish is associate director of Americans for Prosperity-Virginia.

At first glance, Virginia seems to offer a wide range of choices for educating our students. We have traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, home schooling and learning modules.

But despite all the variety, these options are not equally available to all families.

They should be. Students should not be denied the education that is best for them because of their zip code or their parents’ financial circumstances.

We need to update our education system so that every student can discover, develop and apply their unique talents.

Virginia school districts can set their own open enrollment policies, giving some students more options. And the state offers a scholarship program for students with lower family incomes 300 percent federal poverty level and students with special needs.

But this program has its limits. Just over a third of Virginia students are eligible for these scholarships and only 0.3% use one. That leaves tens of thousands more on the outside looking in.

And each of these students is unique, which these existing approaches do not take into account. Students have different interests, abilities and learning styles. And their education should be customizable to reflect this reality.

Instead, we have a system that emphasizes conformity – that tries to teach every child the same way, in the same setting, the same curriculum – and expects those unique children succeed. It is a futile wait.

Instead of a single system, parents and students need options.

Parents are in the best position to make educational decisions for their children, and funding should follow students so that parents are empowered to choose the environment that meets these unique learning needs.

As Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) said in his first address to the General Assembly: “My message to parents is the following. You have a fundamental right, enshrined in law by this General Assembly, to make decisions about the education, upbringing and care of your child. And we will protect and reaffirm that right. Listen to me clearly. When parents are empowered and engaged, a child’s life is enhanced.

Education was a critical element in the election of governor, and it will be essential to the success of our state. Lawmakers should heed the governor’s words.

During the just-concluded 2022 legislative session, three bills were introduced that would have expanded Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

Delete Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) and David A. LaRock (R-Loudoun), who both sit on the education committee, and Philip Scott (R-Spotsylvania) introduced measures to create ESA programs that would help pay for tuition, fees, textbooks, tutoring and other qualified expenses at a school of the parent’s choice, using a percentage of public funds per pupil.

ESAs allow teachers and families to work together to find a learning environment that best suits each child and allows everyone to thrive.

These bills should be improved next session, including expanding eligibility for an ESA to all students, instead of limiting eligibility only to those whose families meet the income requirements. We need to fund students, not systems, and fix what’s broken in K-12 education.

But there are even more opportunities to help our children get the kind of education that will prepare them for success in life and inspire them to learn for life.

While limited open enrollment is available to some, enacting mandatory intra-district and inter-district open enrollment would expand opportunities for students by allowing them to attend any public school inside and outside of their school district and empower families to find the right setting for their child no matter where they live.

By expanding access to a variety of educational opportunities outside of the classroom, including apprenticeships and competency-based learning, students can get a head start on developing the talents needed to succeed in the careers they will eventually choose.

To the disappointment of many families, Virginia’s 2022 regular legislative session ended without passing much-needed transformative educational reform. It should be a top priority during the 2023 legislative session to create opportunities that will help every child in Virginia discover multiple paths to their individual version of the American Dream. Let’s start.

Julio V. Miller