Ep. 155: Big Ideas – “The School Choice Roadmap” with Andrew Campanella

January 23, 2020

In his new book, Andrew Campanella outlines seven steps parents can take to find the right learning environment for their children. Campanella is the president of National School Choice Week and a long-time advocate for educational opportunity.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today I’m delighted to be joined by Andrew Campanella, the president of National School Choice Week, and the author of The School Choice Roadmap: 7 Steps to Finding the Right School for Your Child, which is the subject of our conversation today. Andrew, welcome to the podcast.

Andrew Campanella: Thanks so much for having me, Jason. I appreciate it.

Jason Bedrick: Our pleasure. So, first things first, why did you write this book? Who’s it for and what need does it fill?

Andrew Campanella: Well, I wrote The School Choice Roadmap because every time I talk with families who have chosen schools or learning environments for their kids, they almost always tell me that they wished they had discovered school choice sooner and made the choices that they did sooner. But that there wasn’t information readily available, in many cases that they could use that was practical, jargon free and easy to understand. A lot about education is unnecessarily confusing and sometimes seems designed to be that way, but parents are smart and they’re able to cut through it, but it should be easier to present all that information for families if they want to choose a school or learning environment for their kids.

So, I decided why not put all that information in one place, explaining what the differences and similarities are between the different types of schools and providing some practical, jargon-free tips for moms and dads if they want to go about looking for and choosing a school that meets their daughter or son’s needs.

Jason Bedrick: Well, we’re definitely going to dive into the tips and tricks that you’ve provided. Lots of practical information in this book, and it is definitely jargon free, which is definitely a plus given the types of books that I’m usually reading. You open your book though with a fateful encounter with a mother and her eight year old child in Kansas City, Missouri.
Now, you’ve been involved in the school choice movement and education policy more broadly for many, many years. But you say that meeting them changed your perspective. How so?

Andrew Campanella: Sure. So, let me set the scene. I’m walking into this event in Kansas City, Missouri, and this is in 2012 or 2013, and I see a mother and her young son walking into the event at the same time I am. It’s a School Choice Week event, of course. And I asked them why they are going to this event, and the mother explained to me that they are going to this event because she has found a school where her son is thriving. And they had moved to a community for their local public school, and for whatever reason that school was a terrible fit for him and she despondent. They had moved there for that school. They had chosen their home to be in a specific district or zone. And yet, even though that school had gotten excellent reviews, great ratings, good grades, you name it, all the accolades, he just wasn’t doing well in that school.

And so, she found a different school for him using school choice and he was succeeding. And what he said to me was what really stood out and that was, “I want to attend this event to talk with other kids and other people because I finally feel like I belong somewhere at school.” And it really struck me because it was such a normal, basic comment, but it was really powerful. When people talk about education, they often don’t think of the emotional component of it, of the happiness component of it, of the momentum that builds within a child when they’re succeeding and learning and progressing. But that young kid was able to capture all of that within 10 seconds. And it made me think about the work that we do and made me think we need to stop talking as much about standardized tests and more about people’s wellbeing.

And so that changed not only the way I talk about education, but really made me do a lot more listening. And instead of asking people questions about their child’s achievement in school necessarily, even though that’s important, I asked them to just tell me their stories. And it is from those stories that I was able to write this book.

Jason Bedrick: I’ll tell you, I love that anecdote because in the education policy worlds, we so often talk basically about averages. Right? I mean, when you’re talking about graduation rates, when you’re talking about test scores for schools or for districts or for states, what you’re really talking about is average. Right? And we sometimes forget we’re dealing with individual children. So, you might have a school that on average is very, very high performing, but what about this particular kid that it’s not working for?
Well, that’s what school choice is for, right? It empowers individuals, not just looking at the system as a whole. But you repeatedly emphasize it, especially in the first chapter, that you the parent are the expert. So, I know a lot of people going to be skeptical about that. Is that really true? Aren’t the experts the people who have degrees in education or child psychology, not your typical parent?

Andrew Campanella: Well, first of all, I a hundred million percent believe, and I know that’s a statistical term because you’re your researcher. I have a hundred million percent believe that parents know their kids better than anybody else on this planet, and they are truly more qualified to make these choices than anybody else. I’m not knocking experts. I’m not saying that experts and researchers and people who are involved in this work do not add tremendous value to the work. But what I’m saying is when it comes to making an individual choice for an individual child, a parent does know more. A parent and knows what a kid is like when he or she wakes up in the morning. A parent knows child’s interests, the things that might be defined as quirks by somebody else but are endearing to others. Parents know those things, experts can’t know that about your child. So, unless that expert is in the room while you’re parenting your kids, they don’t know what learning environment will best fit your child’s interests, needs, and challenges.

So, I truly believe that. And I also think the overall research bears it out because the work that EdChoice has done with your review of the gold standard studies shows that when parents are empowered to actively choose their children’s education, outcomes across the board are positive. Graduation rates go up, achievement goes up, student performance overall goes up, parents satisfaction goes up, all those things. And that’s as a result of not one person choosing for all kids, but tens of millions of parents making tens of millions of individual choices. So, that is parent power in action.

Jason Bedrick: Your answer reminds me of something that former Texas Senator Phil Gramm said. So he was once telling an audience that his support for school choice and other policies derive from the fact that no one else can love your child more than you do. And during the Q&A, there was a woman who said, “Well that’s not true. I love your children just as much as you do.” And he responded, “Oh really? What are their names?”

Andrew Campanella: Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Jason Bedrick: Right. So, I mean there are experts out there that add tremendous value to parents but parents still know and love their children more than anybody else or are in a better position. They have that, in economics we’ll say local knowledge that far away experts just don’t have, so that’s why you want to empower them. And that’s what your book does, is it helps empower those parents with outside knowledge so that they can combine their local knowledge and their love with outside knowledge from experts and whatnot to make the right decision.

So, before embarking on their search for the right school or learning environment, because your book is not just about schools. And I should pause for a second and say one of the great things I really love about your book is that you are not prescriptive at all. You are not trying to nudge anybody into a particular type of environment. You talk about traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, online schools, home schools and even other types of learning environments. And just trying to give a broad overview of the different types of options that are available to parents without trying to put your thumb on the scale and push them in any one particular direction. But before they begin their search, what are a few things parents should know?

Andrew Campanella: Well, I think there are really three things that parents should know before they embark on the process of making these important choices. The first is that they should start right away. If you want to choose a different school or learning environment for the next school year, you should start this winter. Don’t wait because the earlier you start, the more options you’ll have, the more information you’ll provide to schools about demand, the more seats they can open up, all those things. So getting a head start, getting an early start is important.

The second thing that I want parents to know is that, unfortunately, geography really matters. So if you live in Miami for example, where I live, you’ll likely find that you have far more options to choose from than if you live in say, Lincoln, Nebraska. And the reason for that is because of state policy. Every state, as you know, Jason—as everybody at EdChoice knows very, very well—has different policies. Every state has different policies. Florida has far more options for families in terms of access to different types of schools. Letting parents choose schools in different districts, letting parents choose charter schools. Wide variety of magnet schools, private school choice programs that are sponsored by the state that help offset the cost of private school tuition. Full-time, free online schools that parents can send their kids to. So, geography does matter. That’s the second thing.

The third thing is I want parents to know and own their power and that power is the fact that they are making a decision for their children. They are the most qualified people to make this decision. We as a society expect all citizens, all people in our country to make dozens if not hundreds of decisions every single day about themselves and their families, and education is no different. You are qualified regardless of how many years you spent in school, regardless of how much money you make or where you live to make these decisions. And you will make a good decision if you consider all of your options.

Jason Bedrick: All right, so let’s dive right in. What steps can parents take to find the right learning environment for their children?

Andrew Campanella: So this is really the heart of the book, and the reason I wrote The School Choice Roadmap is to give people literally that, a roadmap to finding a learning environment that will meet their kids needs and so we can go through those seven steps.

The first is to think back to your own time in school. And this might seem corny, but it’s important because your perception of education is shaped by your own experiences. And so whether you learned a lot in school or felt like you didn’t learn enough, or if you had a really good experience with a teacher or a bad experience in a school, all those things shape how you view education. And they will shape your school search process. So, I encourage parents to start with a blank slate, write down all of their own educational experiences and in the book there are worksheets that will help you do this. So, that’s step one.

Step two is identifying the big goals that you have for your child. What’s the type of person you want your child to grow up to be? Not necessarily what you want them to be, but the type of person you hope that they’ll be? What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What challenges do they face? Things like that. What do you like most about your kid? What are you most excited about? What are you most worried about? All those things. Write down those goals and put them into perspective and that will also help you weigh what you want for your child against your own experiences and see how they’re influencing the search process.

Step three is decide what you want and need in a school or learning environment. And parents often refer to needs such as they need a school where their child learn, be safe, feel respected, and also be happy. Those are pretty universal needs when it comes to a school, but there are also lots of different wants and there can be dozens of things that you might want in a school. Perhaps you want a specific way that math is taught. Maybe you want focus on a different subject or extracurricular activity offering or smaller class sizes or larger class sizes, which some parents want. Smaller school setting, larger school settings, specific school environment, things like that. All those things that you might want, and putting this down on paper will help you identify what your priorities are. And so the book provides a bunch of different resources for you to do this. Some prompts that you can use, some questions you can answer. The goal being putting down all of your priorities onto a priorities worksheet.

Step four is to make a list and research schools in your area. I encourage you to make a list of every school in your area first. Don’t exclude schools because you think, for example, if they’re a private school that you might not be able to afford them because there are state-funded and also private scholarships you might be able to get. Don’t exclude a public school that might be in a different zone, because there might be an open enrollment program that you can use that will let you send your child there. Considered charter schools, magnet schools, online schools, and also homeschooling. Don’t forget homeschooling. So, that’s step four. Make a list, research schools, narrow that list down based on the information you find online.

Step five is to visit schools and take school tours. So, you’re going to have a short list. You’re going to visit those schools. You’re going to ask a lot of questions. The book has some worksheets and exercises that you can use to come up with your own questions as well as a list of about a dozen questions that I think are helpful to ask when you’re on one of these tours. Things to look for, what types of notes to take. Once you do that, you’ll go into step six and that’s evaluating schools.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. Just before we get to step six, I want to give some examples of those questions that you would ask. So, on pages 174 and 175, you’ve got this long list of questions that you can ask during the tour. So, do teachers have control of their classrooms? Do the classes seem engaging and interesting? Do you see books, instructional materials and computer equipment or technology? I mean all of these are questions for yourself when you’re observing the school. Like what’s going on here, right?

Are staff members friendly to you in the halls, in the classroom and the main office? Is the school clean and well maintained? I mean these are all signs of a school that is well ordered, that is geared toward the learning of the child. And then sorts of questions that you could even ask: Will my child learn here? Will my child be safe here? Will my child be happy here? I mean things for parents to contemplate as they’re going through the tour or when they’re talking to their spouse after the tour. Lots of things that you might take for granted, but it’s all put together in a very organized, systematic fashion to help you make a wise decision.
But go ahead, continue. So, step six you said is evaluating the school’s learning environment.

Andrew Campanella: Right. And back to the school tours for a second. This is the one thing that I get the most questions about, is school tours, what to look for on them, how to set them up. So, this chapter is pretty exhaustive and it has a lot of information in it. We’ve also created a bunch of videos based on this chapter that people can get online. They don’t have a copy of the book yet or if they just want that information, we have that on the School Choice Week website and it’s going to be on The School Choice Roadmap website as well.

Once you get into step six, that’s evaluating schools. That’s really personal, steps six and seven. Incredibly personal decisions that parents are going to make and how to evaluate. Going through, there’s some worksheets that will help you do that. I tried to make this as, like I said, practical and tactical as I could. So there’s opportunities to write in the book or if you get the eBook to print out worksheets from our website that you can use so that you’re really going through a decision making process that’s not philosophical but practical.

And so, you’re going to want to evaluate all these environments based on those general questions that you just referenced. What environment do you think will be the place where your child learns the most, is safest, schools that meet your priorities, where your child will be happiest? Things like that. And of course, schools that align to the things that every family has that is unique to them, their own values, their own principles, their own goals. Those things should never get stripped out of the equation here because just like schools are not one-size-fits-all, a school search process isn’t one-size-fits-all either. And that’s why I hopefully have built in a lot of areas where people can add the things that are important to them into this process.

And then seven, once you decide what type of school or what school you want to choose for your child, going through the application process, making sure they receive it, and then getting your child ready for his or her first day at this new school. This book provides some tips and resources on how to do that as well.

So, that’s an overview of the seven steps. And the goal, again, is to start from scratch and hopefully give parents as much information and things to think about and a process that they can follow to find a school where their child will learn, succeed and be happy.

Jason Bedrick: Now, most listeners to this podcast are going to be familiar with traditional public schools, charters, privates, homeschooling, etc. But you have a whole chapter dedicated to unique approaches to education. Could you just share? I mean there are some things in here that some of our listeners might not have heard of. So, what are some of the unique approaches to education that you described in your book?

Andrew Campanella: Well, as I was talking to schools in writing this book, and I talked to dozens of different schools and got questions from people about, well, what type of school is this? I kept doing more research and reading more about it and I realized that there’s so much more to education and to schools than just the six types that I laid out. And I wanted people to not be confused by some of the terms.

So, for example, there are alternative schools, there are art schools, boarding schools, career and technical schools, drop-out prevention schools, gifted and talented schools, IB schools, lab schools, language immersion schools. And the list goes on. And a lot of these different approaches are either focused on themes or pedagogy, or they’re focused on different approaches, meaning different curricular approaches, etc. And they cut across the different types. So you could have, for example, a Montessori charter school, a traditional public school that has a Montessori approach, a charter Montessori school and a private Montessori school. They’re all considered Montessori schools. So, I wanted to provide some information about schools that might not easily fall into one of the six types, but that parents might have heard the terms

Jason Bedrick: And in your concluding chapter you encourage parents who have found a school that’s right for their child to quote, “Pay it forward.” So, what do you mean by that and how are some ways that parents can pay it forward?
Andrew Campanella: Well, what I mean is if you have found a school that meets your child’s needs, be the inspiration for another family that is just beginning this process. And really the best way you can do that is by simply telling your story to another parent and explaining how you went through the process, but do it in a way that’s not judgmental.

One of the things that families tell me all the time is that they come under tremendous pressure from members of their own family and from friends to either choose or not choose one type of school or one individual school over another based on their friend or family member’s children educational experiences. And that’s tough because you don’t want to make the wrong decision. But at the same time your instinct and your intuition should trump all else. So, when you’re being an inspiration to somebody else and when you’re sharing your story, do so in a way that respects the fact that their children might have different experiences and needs as your own.

The second thing you can do to pay it forward is if you live in an area where there are not as many school choice options or if you live close to a place where there are not as many school choice options, speak up and give voice to families who want more opportunities. The reason there are so many school choice options today is because parents stood up and demanded them and told policy makers in their states that they needed to expand access to different types of schools for families and allow families these opportunities. We need more people to stand up and say that so that we can continue to see an increase in the number of options available.

So, those are really the two things that I think parents can do to pay it forward: inspire individual families and help lay the groundwork to create additional educational opportunities in the future.

Jason Bedrick: All right. Now if parents listening to this podcast want more information about how to choose a school, obviously the first thing they should do is they should go buy your book, but you also have a ton of resources in your book where you point to that they can find more information. So, where else should parents be looking for more information about how to choose a school?

Andrew Campanella: Well, I will say that the book comes out on January 21. I hope people get a copy. If they don’t, there is still a lot of information on the School Choice Week website and that’s schoolchoiceweek.com. We have a simple landing page now just for parents. It’s called schoolchoiceguide.com. You can go there as well, get some of the basic information. And I would refer families also to your website at edchoice.org because a lot of the information about private school choice programs, the research that I did tracks along with the research you guys have done. And so there are a lot of organizations out there, I’ve tried to provide their names and websites in the book as well as on our sites so that people can check them out.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Andrew Campanella, the president of National School Choice Week. And you can find his book, The School Choice Roadmap: 7 Steps to Finding the Right School for Your Child. I assume, Andrew, it’s going to be on amazon.com and anywhere fine books are sold. Is that right?

Andrew Campanella: That is right. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart. It’s going to be in more than 100 independent bookstores across the country, hopefully more.

Jason Bedrick: Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Andrew Campanella: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to the podcast. Follow us on social media @edchoice, And don’t forget to sign up for emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.