The importance of choice


When my son and I moved to Rhode Island from the West Coast in 1999, I had one year to make a critical decision for my son: where to enroll Ryan in school. I very much wanted my son to go to a school with a true sense of community, small classes, a faith base, dedicated and qualified educators and, very importantly for my son, a racially diverse population. My desire for a choice beyond the neighborhood public school led me on a search that ended with Holy Name School in Providence.

I was fortunate; though forced to make financial sacrifices, I was able to choose my son’s school. The choice proved to be a good one for Ryan, far from perfect but much better than the only option we would have had had my salary been lower, had I had more than one child, had I not known how to look for an alternative to the local public school, or had I not been acutely aware of the incredible importance of making the right choice for my son’s education.

Holy Name School closed as Ryan finished third grade. The school fell victim to low enrollment; not enough parents could afford to choose the Catholic school. Looking for a comparable school, I chose Holy Ghost School on Federal Hill next for my son. Fourth grade was great, fifth grade not so much. I had serious reservations about having Ryan complete his middle school years at Holy Ghost, and so I began another school search. This time I chose our town’s public middle school, Johnston’s Ferri, which was being run remarkably well by an impressive administrative duo.

All this changed by the time Ryan began eighth grade. A weaker administration led to a weaker curriculum; lacking a contract, the teachers began working to rule; and the town high school was on the brink of losing its accreditation. All but the most gifted and motivated students suffered that year, and many parents of eighth graders began to explore non-public high school options for their children. I was among that number.

In the end, very few parents were able to afford the choice of a high school outside our town. Many of us who opted for that choice have had to make substantial sacrifices, but at least we have the option of choice. Others are not so fortunate. My ability to choose Bishop Hendricken High School for my son has made all the difference in his preparation for college and life. Like our first non-public school choice, Bishop Hendricken is far from perfect, but it is light years ahead of what my son would have experienced had we not been able to make a choice.

Choice, what a simple concept. We Americans expect choices in almost every aspect of life, yet in the critical aspect of educating our children and ensuring not only their success but that of our future as a society, we too often allow others to make our choices for us. Maybe the local public school is the best option for one’s child. Maybe a public school in another Rhode Island community would be better for one’s child, though. Or maybe a specific charter school or a private or parochial school would be a better fit for the child. Right now, those options do not exist for everyone in our state. Those who live in economic hardship or those without the means to transport their children to other than the local public schools, for instance, have no choice.

Children with talents, learning styles and/or dispositions better suited to one school over another do not necessarily have the luxury of belonging to a family with the option to ensure school choice. What damage do we as a society do when we prevent a child from fulfilling his or her talents?

It is beyond time for Rhode Islanders to take a stand for school choice in our state. What would that mean for our children and parents? It would mean all parents, as the primary educators of their children, would have the ability, through a voucher system, of choosing the right school – public or private – for their children. It would mean more success for our children and, in turn, more success for our state.

What would school choice mean for our state’s public schools? School choice would foster a healthy sense of competition and educational experimentation and growth in our public schools, which will continue to be funded through the property taxes of all homeowners.

School choice is being celebrated nationally next week at more than 3,500 events nationwide as part of National School Choice Week 2013. Running from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, National School Choice Week is a grassroots, bipartisan coalition of parents, students, educators and community leaders that aims to shine a spotlight on effective education options for every child. If you are interested in learning more about the possibility of School Choice in Rhode Island, please visit the website of the Friedman Foundation at

Also please join the Rhode Island Catholic School Parent Federation at a presentation on school choice at the Rhode Island State House on Jan. 31 from 4 to 6:30 p.m. This presentation, held as part of National School Choice Week 2013, will feature speakers well versed in school choice and poised to help make choice a reality in our state.

Terry Novak is a member of the Diocese of Providence Catholic Parents Federation Board and an educator. She is an English professor at Johnson & Wales University and, “most importantly,” as she says, the mother of Ryan, a senior at Bishop Hendricken High School.


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