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Public schools need to excel in promoting the choices they offer

When we hear the words school choice, they often conjure up more questions than answers. As a superintendent of a public school system in the West Valley, and current president of the Arizona School Administrators, Inc., one thing we know for certain is, choice is here to stay.  To this end, none of us should be concerned about school choice when the focus is on what is best for each and every student. According to the National School Choice Week website, “It is an unprecedented opportunity, every January, from January 26 to February 1, 2014, to shine a spotlight on the need for effective education options for all children.”

Planned by a diverse and nonpartisan coalition of individuals and organizations, National School Choice Week features special events and activities that highlight support for school choice programs. Independently planned by hundreds of organizations and thousands of schools and individuals, National School Choice Week allows participants to advance their own messages of educational opportunity while uniting with like-minded groups across the country.

Participants in National School Choice believe that all parents should be empowered to choose the best educational environments for all of our children and it supports a variety of school choice options — from encouraging increased access to great public schools, to public charter schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, private schools, homeschooling and more.

The first step to promoting school choice for those of us serving the over 1 million students in public schools in Arizona is to recognize that public education is an American issue that affects us all. It is the foundation of the quality of life in our communities, the economic future of our state, and it is the basic knowledge and skills our students acquire that will aid them in becoming contributing citizens.  It is not merely the “grade” a school or district receives, it is the authenticity that is behind it.  This includes clear, open and consistent communication with our stakeholders regarding the how and what we teach students as well as listening to their beliefs and opinions.

It is no surprise that 87 percent of families choose to send their students to public schools.  Decades ago when many of us went to school, families sent their children to their neighborhood schools.  These facilities were built to be centrally located around housing construction to meet the demands of the new families that settled in a particular area. Now distance is not an issue as many parents seek a variety of open enrollment options suited to best meet their children’s needs.

As members of ASA, our evidence shows that parents are “choosing” to send their children to public schools because of our deep commitment to meeting the individualized learning needs of each student with a highly qualified teacher in front of each classroom. Our dedication not only includes instruction, but maximizing learning through technology, family engagement, equal opportunity and safe and secure learning environments.

What differs in the way we promote our schools is the semantics of how we are presenting ourselves to our external audiences. On the National School Choice Week website, Frank Luntz presents the language of school choice as the Nine Communication Commandments to use with parents and in publications.

1. Acknowledge what the public really thinks.

2. What Americans really want: effective, motivating, challenging schools and teachers.

3. Personalize, individualize — and above all, humanize.

4. Focus on the results — not on the process.

5. Promote equal opportunity regardless of geography.

6. Don’t focus on the negative — but it must be part of your message.

7. Part of being a great country is having great schools.

8. Part of being a good parent is to demand good schools.

9. Students themselves are the most effective spokespeople.

If we want to continue to be the optimal choice of parents, we need to capitalize on the most effective tools to enable us to communicate information explaining the types of learning environments we are providing in our schools and districts today. It is up to us to invite members of our business community, elected officials, organizations, and taxpayers to visit our schools in order to experience how our democratic ideals are put into action. Education is not only the key to a prosperous nation, it has and will always be an American right and we are accountable for the knowledge and skills that students acquire in our schools.

Let’s take this opportunity to acknowledge the decisions of seven out of every eight families who choose public school districts by promoting the outstanding choices we offer.

Roger Freeman, president, Arizona School Administrators, Inc., and superintendent of the Littleton Elementary School District.

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