Opinion

Education Choice: Individualizing Education For Every Child

Lennie Jarratt Project Manager for School Reform, Heartland Institute

Do you know a child with an individualized education plan (IEP)? You may know one and not even realize it, and if our education system were organized correctly, every child would have an IEP.

An IEP is used to customize a child’s education to meet his or her specific needs. The IEP concept is an apt description of education choice, as both allow education to be individualized to provide every student with access to education opportunities that fit their specific needs and learning style.

A common misconception about IEPs is they are used only for children with special needs or underperformance. Actually, IEPs are also used for accelerated learners, albeit less frequently because many parents perceive their student to be stigmatized if they have an IEP. Instead of being a negative, an IEP is an excellent example of what education can and should be for all students.

The current method of education for the great majority of students is more aptly called “seat-time education,” a method requiring students to sit in a seat for a specified number of hours each year. This one-size-fits-all education model is the antithesis of an IEP, where education is individualized to how quickly or slowly a student learns a subject. Seat-time education slows down the accelerated learner while attempting to speed up the slower learner, making things more difficult for nearly everyone involved.

Exacerbating the problems linked to seat-time education is the antiquated method of assigning a school based on the ZIP code in which a child lives. System-based funding prevents individualized education because money is focused on maintaining the system instead of meeting the children’s individual educational needs.

The alternative is to provide every child with an IEP by focusing funding on the child instead of the system. Once children are the focus, IEPs may be established, allowing the implementation of mastery based education, where each child is allowed to learn at his or her own pace. This individualization provides every child the chance to explore and excel by unleashing their natural love of learning.

The concept of an IEP for every child is more commonly known as school choice—or more accurately, education choice. Education choice allows parents to choose the education options that best fit their children’s needs. Choices include attending a public school, a public charter school, a private school, homeschooling, online schooling, college-credit programs, tutoring, educational therapies, and any combination of these that works best for the child. All those options should be available to every child, regardless of where they live and their parents’ income. IEPs given to every child grant each one the best possible chance to learn and excel.

Liz Robbins has seven children, two of whom have inherited a health problem that has caused them to miss entire school years. The newly passed education savings accounts program in their home state of Nevada will now provide Robbins with alternatives to ensure each of her children will have access to the best possible educational options.

Florida student Dylan has struggled with dyslexia. Thanks to a McKay Scholarship, a Florida program providing more than 28,000 Florida students with special needs the opportunity to attend a participating private or public school, Dylan now attends a school that meets his educational needs. Dylan finally has his IEP, but thousands of other Florida students still lack the opportunity to choose an individualized education.

Many families live in districts where the schools are not safe or are not providing an adequate education. Some of these parents are willing to face jail time and even thousands of dollars in fines for trying to get their children an adequate education. In New York, Yolanda Miranda was willing to give up custody of her children so they could attend a better school. In Ohio, Kelly Williams-Bahr went to jail for nine days for putting her daughter in a better school. In Connecticut, Ana Wade had to pay more than $10,000 to the local school district to avoid jail time for putting her children in a better school.

Concerned parents should not be forced to go to such extreme lengths to gain access to a quality education for their children. Every child deserves a quality education that fits his or her individual needs and learning style, and school choice provides this individualization. Every state should follow Nevada’s lead and provide their children with an IEP to the school of their choice.

Lennie Jarratt (ljarratt@heartland.org) is project manager for school reform at The Heartland Institute.