Trent Williamson

Williamson is head of school at Harding Academy in Memphis.

A variety of quality choices strengthens all

By Updated: February 08, 2019 5:03 PM CT | Published: February 08, 2019 3:30 PM CT

I was born and raised in a rural Colorado farming community and am a proud product of local public schools. Before moving to the South, I had never been introduced to the private vs. public school dynamic, school choice, nor “battle lines being drawn” over educational funding.

Where I am from, there were no choices; and a private school education was an out-of-reach ideal reserved exclusively for the elite living in big cities.

Fast forward 55 years, and I now live in Memphis (a city that I love) as a school leader at Harding Academy (a school that I love) - an independent, Christian, life-preparatory school with a long and rich history. I am excited by the ongoing discussions about expanding Tennessee’s school choice programs simply because it is going to take a variety of options to provide for the myriad unique needs of children in our city and state.

Sadly, the vast majority of parents in both rural and urban parts of the state are limited to one option for their children, and we should support any legislation that changes that reality.

Why? Because parents should have the right to choose what is in the best interest of their children.

It is discouraging to continually read about “political capital,” “battle lines” and “pulling funds from public schools and sending the money to the private sector.”

It is important to reframe this discussion with two fundamental questions: 1. What is the source of revenue for public schools? And 2. Who should determine what is in the best interest of a child? In my mind, the answer to both questions is the same: PARENTS.

Sadly, when any discussion of expanding school choice is raised, the most passionately debated issue is money and not what parents deem to be best for their children.

We elect officials to steward the resources generated from the citizenry. We pay taxes to support those efforts, but have very little control, if any, on how those resources are used to educate our children (unless wealthy enough to pay both taxes and tuition).

We have an obligation to the next generation to provide them with every opportunity to be successful. That success begins with an educational system that is nimble and inclusive of a variety of options from which parents can choose.

Teachers and school leaders know that any quality school will include requirements for a nationally norm-referenced test, which allows them to see how their students compare to students across the state and country.

To ensure our schools are working effectively and preparing our students to compete with other students nationally and globally, we must be able to gauge their progress comparatively. However, the current obsession with testing is having a detrimental effect on teachers and students.

No single test accurately conveys the many nuanced factors that define a quality education. Ultimately, if students are not provided with an education that is competitive and of high quality, then parents should be empowered to employ their resources to choose other alternatives.

As legislators consider the logistics of any school choice program, it is important to make the program as broad as possible.

While an expanded school choice program should give priority to families who are most in need, many families in middle income brackets should also be afforded the power to choose.

There have been many improvements to the education system with increased options including public charter schools, public optional schools, independent schools, virtual learning and homeschooling.

However, these options are simply out of reach financially for many families in Tennessee. Our legislators must consider how to make these programs accessible for all Tennessee families, and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are a great first step. With ESAs, parents can use state education dollars to pay for school tuition and fees, textbooks, tutoring, special therapies, and more.

SAM STOCKARD: Education savings accounts or vouchers: No matter the verbiage, lawmakers set for fight

ESAs empower parents to choose what they believe is best for their children.

This year, Gov. Bill Lee and members of the General Assembly have the renewed opportunity, by supporting school choice programs every chance they have, to give our parents, teachers, and, most importantly, our children what they need.

A recent poll revealed that 75% of respondents in West Tennessee support ESAs and expanded choice. Recently, when discussing education reform a very wise friend told me, “It is going to take more than one arrow to kill this elephant.”

Our quivers must be full of options (public, private, virtual, homeschooling), and ultimately parents should be empowered to choose those that serve their children best.

<strong>Trent Williamson</strong>

Trent Williamson


School choice Education Savings Accounts

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