The public education system in America traces its roots back to a time before the internet – before cars, before electricity and even before our Constitution. The Boston Latin School was established in 1635 – and for most of the time since, factors such as geographic location (zoning), economic status, race and gender have played defining roles in determining who could attend which institutions.
Although government-run education has changed significantly over the centuries, one negative has remained: The neighborhood where your child lives still greatly determines the quality of their education – which in turn influences everything from employment to incarceration rates.
Despite nearly 400 years of advances, geography remains stubbornly determinant of the quality of a child’s education. So, although education is the great equalizer, we have not been able to apply it equally.
If we are bold enough to try, I believe we can find a solution to the persistent zoning problem that has occupied education for so long.
In recent years, homeschooling has become more popular than ever, in large part because of COVID-19 responses and questionable curricula taught by public schools. Parents have rightfully sought alternative education systems, like homeschooling, to make sure their children get a quality education.
Homeschooling works for many students. There are some, however, who could benefit from an alternative at-home instructional system, one that provides both structure and opportunities for individualized learning and social interaction. Parents have to wear so many hats already – we should not also expect them to teach every subject and grade level.
I talk every day with parents who want something better for their kids. I have three school-aged sons myself, so I get that. Years ago, I became more familiar with (and more frustrated by) the education they were receiving, so I decided to get involved. I served on the Collier County School Board, founded and served on educational boards and organizations, and eventually launched a network of charter schools in Florida.
Recent advances in technology – specifically virtual reality – have allowed us to launch a first-of-its-kind school across Florida that eliminates the problem of zoning and geography altogether. We created Optima Classical Academy as a tuition-free third through eighth grade classical charter school option for students to get high-quality instruction in virtual reality classrooms, regardless of where they live.
This approach could eliminate our zoning issue. For the first time, we have a solution that provides high-quality education to K-12 students in every neighborhood across our country. If we are bold enough to try, we could give every American child the tools they need to earn success. We can finally say goodbye to 400 years of allowing something as arbitrary as geography to dictate life trajectories.
Our concept is not for every student. It is, however, one example of what can happen when parents involve themselves in their child’s education and look outside the box for solutions. There is tremendous value in our approach, and I hope it inspires more and more parents to get more involved in their child’s education.
Isn’t it about time we propelled publicly funded education into the 21st century?
Erika Donalds is a national school choice advocate, a mother to three sons, former school board member and the wife of US Rep. Byron Donalds (FL-19).