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Last fall, for the first time in 25 years, my wife and I didn’t buy any school supplies, monitor any homework assignments, or attend any “Back-to-School Nights.”

With our youngest child now away at college, we are, at long last, empty nesters (if you don’t count our “boomerang child” who just returned home temporarily).

Our “graduation” from the K-12 phase of parenthood has given us reason to reflect on the many happy memories our four children made – and the many excellent teachers from whom they learned – during their schooling years. But it also has given us reason to lament the persistence of some nagging “double standards” in public education that policymakers ought to address.

Here’s one I find particularly annoying:

Students whose interests align with the financing of their local public schools get treated better than those whose interests do not.

Our K-12 years began in Washington, D.C. where our eldest child attended a public school three blocks from our home. We’d heard many good things about this school – which offered full-day programs for pre-K and kindergarten students – but we weren’t sold on the idea of all-day kindergarten. So, we met with the principal and asked if Allison could be enrolled part-time – either attending classes every other day or until noon every day.

The response would prove to be revealing. The principal said she’d accommodate our request so long as we did the half-day plan instead of the every-other-day plan. She explained that public schools receive funding for every day that a child is marked present, so her school would come out ahead financially if we did half days rather than every other days.

We liked the half-day option better anyway, so this turned out to be a win-win solution. But we would find over the next 25 years that our children would sometimes be steered in certain directions – and away from other possibilities – based on what was financially best for the local public schools and their personnel rather than what might be best for the student.

For example, during high school, one of our boys wanted to take an online course through the Florida Virtual School (FLVS). He’d previously taken several FLVS courses and had appreciated their scheduling flexibility (with FLVS, you could start and finish at any point in the 12-month calendar, do the coursework from anywhere at any time of day, and proceed through the coursework at your own pace).

Curiously, our local public school tried to steer him away from this FLVS course and toward the same course offered by the Leon County Virtual School.

We didn’t understand why switching the course provider was so important. The online courses were identical. Why did our local school district want so badly for our son to take his online course in a computer lab at his brick-and-mortar school rather than benefiting from all of the flexibility of FLVS? Because the school district got more money that way. It was “all about the money,” we came to learn.

Ultimately, we decided to go along to get along. We didn’t want to alienate school officials over a matter that just wasn’t all that important. So, we had him take the course through the less-flexible county program.

Still, this episode left us wishing that parents (rather than school administrators) controlled the per-pupil dollars allocated for their children. Because conflicts between what a school wants and what a student needs aren’t always trivial – and even though parents aren’t perfect, we care more about our kids than about the schools.

And education should be about doing what’s best for students – not what’s best for school officials.


William Mattox is the director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options at The James Madison Institute. Column courtesy of Context Florida.