An original version of this piece appeared with Kentucky School Talk.
School choice is a hot topic across our state and nation. Many public school leaders frown at the thought of charter schools, private schools, and even home school options. But I want to bring to light school choice in relation to public school options. In many of our counties across the state, we have both county school districts and independent school districts. I ask for legislative leaders and public school leaders to consider what great opportunities independent school districts offer our families, students, and employees.
The unique school culture and educational atmosphere offered by the independent school districts of Kentucky cannot be duplicated and are often found to be a vessel of extraordinary achievement for their communities. Some students thrive in a larger county school district with a large student body and more classes to choose from. However, some students need a more individualized opportunity and will achieve at a higher rate in a place where everyone knows their name and what their interests are. Independent districts offer families these kind of options, but with districts choosing not to participate in “nonresident contract agreements” those options may be becoming more limited.
“Nonresident contract agreements” allow students to move freely from one school to another, as long as both districts agree and sign the contract. If a family determines that the school district in which they reside does not provide the best option for their child, the family can enroll the child in the nearby district with which their home district has a contract.
In many cases across the state, these contractual agreements are “Any and All,” meaning students can go to either district no matter where they reside and the funding for the student goes with the student. When districts refuse to participate in nonresident agreements, students can be limited to a school only in the district they live. In addition, in a few isolated cases such as the one our district is facing, the nonresident contract agreement is a matter of life or death with respect to our school’s existence.
If the school district a person lives in does not provide the best option for them or their child, it should be the parent’s right to choose where the child attends school; it should not be the decision board members who do not understand or perhaps care about the child’s individual needs or goals. Some school board members do not want parents or students to have the option of going to another district, restricting the ability of a parent to make the best choice for his/her child.
Keep in mind that school board members have the power (with three votes) to take these public school options away by refusing to cooperate with neighboring districts by signing nonresident contract agreements. That’s exactly what we’re seeing in Pineville Independent Schools, and that’s why our board released this statement:
“The most important stakeholders in the education enterprise – the students and their parents – have voted with their feet to keep Pineville Independent alive. This should be proof enough that the independent system is serving a need. Parents and students, not school boards, should make the decision of which school system best meets their needs.”
This is not just a Pineville issue; in my opinion, the requirement of contracts between districts has been a hindrance to the progress of public education for generations. When this power is put in the hands of administration and school boards, it can be devastating to educational progress. It is evident that some administrators and board members do not believe in and are not considering the advantages of school choice, thus they are not making decisions that are student-first.
I am very proud to serve our board, our students, and our community. I will not waiver in my belief that we are providing a positive option for our community; that option far outreaches any arbitrary school district lines others are attempting to use in order to restrict choices and educational opportunities. Restricting educational choices and limiting options for families, based on where they live, is not a progressive way of thinking and is detrimental to education reform. As tax-paying and law abiding citizens we are not limited on where we decide to attend church, college, or shop by where we live. Educating a child should not be determined by territorial lines with limitations of admittance.
As Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, as one person sharpens another.” We are better and offer a better education to our students because of our neighboring school districts. We work to the best of our ability every day in public education to create an environment that will lead to student success. The drive to provide the best education stimulates educators to not become complacent; rather, they seek to be lifelong learners to ensure students receive the best they can offer.
To create a county-wide monopoly on education is not the solution. The solution is for educators to work together to do what is best for all students so they may create a better tomorrow. When we become unified in this idea and truly begin to operate in order to best serve others; our students, our teachers, and our state will accomplish greatness and become a beacon for the rest of the nation to follow.
Russell Thompson is the superintendent of Pineville Independent Schools in Eastern Kentucky.