From January 24 through 30, National School Choice Week provides an opportunity to celebrate Idaho’s creative school choices and encourage more innovation in K-12 learning.

Looking back, when I served as a state and federal lawmaker, I had to vote on all types of domestic and foreign policy issues. But improving our education system was more than an abstract or foreign concept, it was a mission and a calling.

I know firsthand how vital a quality education is for breaking down societal barriers. I grew up in a single-parent home where my mother always ingrained the value of education in me. Even though we struggled financially, my mother taught me that a strong education, coupled with hard work and initiative, would help me succeed in life. Her determination and encouragement helped me graduate from college and law school, and eventually find my way to Congress.

I wouldn’t have overcome the obstacles I faced in life and gotten as far as I did in life without the sacrifices my mother made to ensure I received a good education. She chose to put me in private schools from 1st to 8th grade even though she could not afford it. I did not realize at the time that for her this meant going without certain necessities in life to help me achieve my dreams. I don’t think parents should have to decide between putting food on the table and a K-12 education that best fits their child.

The more we can support all mothers and fathers in giving their children a strong education—without dollar signs standing in the way—the better. The more we can empower families to pick a learning environment that matches their child’s needs and style of learning, the better off the next generation of Idahoans will be.

It is true that families in our state already do have several school choices. For example, Idaho has wisely been ahead of the curve in offering online school, as befits a rural state. Families can also choose from various public schools through open enrollment, as well from public charter schools, which are designed to be incubators of innovation in the public education system. One of my favorite examples of our state’s innovation in providing kids’ options is the Advanced Opportunities program, which provides funding for public school students in grades 7-12 who wish to take advanced course work or receive workforce training.

These are good choices; yet, Idaho families are eager for more flexibility and customization. As an example of this, when the state offered grants last fall to offset the expenses associated with distance education, 14,000 applications were submitted within the first 24 hours of applications being open. Parents responded with overwhelming enthusiasm to the idea of being able to use funding directly for the educational goods and services their particular child needed.

This enthusiasm sends a strong message to Idaho innovators, educators, and policymakers: Education offerings across the state must be more responsive to families, not just during the pandemic but also in the long run.

Perhaps we can look to other states for examples of how to make customized education a reality for Idaho families. Several states currently have active education savings account (ESA) programs, which allow families to directly use a portion of public education funding for the educational services their child needs most, such as private school tuition or online learning programs. These kinds of policies empower parents, particularly low-income parents, while helping to foster new learning models.

I am truly grateful for Idaho’s many forward-thinking actions—like the Advanced Opportunities program and emergency grant program—to provide opportunities to all kids. I can think of no better way to pay back the impact of education on my life than to advocate that the next generation of Idahoans have the chance to rise from any circumstance and achieve all of their potential. Let’s work to keep that American Dream alive for the next generation by preserving the school choices we have and extending more flexibility and support to families of K-12 students.

Former congressman Raúl R. Labrador represented Idaho’s 1st District from 2011 to 2019. He lives in Eagle. Labrador wrote this opinion in conjunction with National School Choice Week, a nonprofit that promotes options in K-12 education.

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