School choice helped these students defy the statistics
Funding students directly can change their trajectory in life
When Cheryl Kirk’s twins were nearing high school, she had some tough decisions to make.
Wanting to give her children the best education, Cheryl researched the academic performance data of the schools in Indiana where she lived.
What she found was not encouraging — the schools in the neighborhood where she could afford to live were not thriving. While school officials told her they would get better, the “wait and see” approach was not an option for Cheryl. Making things more discouraging, Cheryl could not afford to live in a neighborhood where the schools were thriving.
“It was either move somewhere and be house-poor because all I could do was rent, or look into other options,” explains Cheryl.
Fortunately, Cheryl had a third option: a school tuition voucher. The state-funded Indiana Choice Scholarship Program enabled Cheryl to place her kids in a school where they excelled.
Today, Cheryl’s twins are both college graduates working in the professional world full-time.
“I’m not sure college graduation was even something that I was pursuing for them at that time,” Cheryl says. “I tell people, it’s not because I’m better than any other parents or they’re smarter than the other kids; it’s because I was able to put them into an environment of success.”
That’s why Cheryl persisted in understanding and accessing the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program.
Her experience is not a unique one.
Cheryl’s story illustrates how giving families the choice to direct state funds to the best options for their child can lead to flourishing for those students. It also highlights how empowering parents to identify the best learning environments can change trajectories for students, setting them up for a life of meaning and purpose in and beyond the classroom.
Setting students up for success
For generations, Americans have attended schools assigned to them according to boundaries drawn by the government. This practice has had a generational impact — buying and selling education on the real estate market, creating the perception that your ZIP code determines the quality of the school and creating the impression that bureaucrats — not parents – should oversee deciding who gets to go to which school. Today, millions of families don’t have the opportunity to choose different learning environments for their children because of barriers, real or perceived.
For Cheryl, many barriers to choosing a different option for her kids were misconceptions.
Cheryl visited a private school she thought might be good for her twins, even though she knew tuition would be out of reach. There, the school’s financial aid counselor told her about the voucher program available for her children.
Launched in 2011, the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program provides students in low to middle-income families with close to $5,500 for school tuition, or roughly half the cost of most schools’ tuition. This year, Indiana lawmakers expanded the program, so it is available to an estimated 98% of families across the state.
Cheryl’s persistence to access this voucher was a lesson for her kids — not just while they were in school but in their adult lives, too.
Advocating for access to quality education for all
Cheryl knows firsthand that misconceptions about Indiana’s school voucher program can hinder families from accessing it.
Cheryl’s experience with school choice has made her an education advocate. “I like to say, ‘I’m not a school choice advocate. I’m a quality education advocate,’” Cheryl explained. “Whatever works best for your family — public, private, or home school — that’s what I’m advocating for. Access shouldn’t be a privilege.”
That’s why Cheryl has been an advocate with EdChoice — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit working to advance educational freedom and a grantee of Stand Together Trust — to educate families and lawmakers on the importance of these funds being directed toward students.
Even with the voucher, Cheryl had to make sacrifices for her twins to attend the school that was best for them, including the transportation to and from school each day — which is more complicated when options for neighborhood carpools and buses are unavailable.
“A lot of times I took jobs where I wasn’t making as much money because the hours wouldn’t conflict with getting my kids to and from school,” Cheryl explained.
“It shouldn’t be that if you live in a certain zip code or make a certain income, then your child has access to quality education,” Cheryl told STT and tells lawmakers when she has the chance to educate them. “Sometimes, lawmakers talk about only wanting to give families a fraction of [their voucher] funds.”
“Quality education can change the trajectory of people’s lives,” Cheryl says. “When I had the twins, I was a 20-year-old single mother on welfare. The statistics don’t say that they would be 22-year-old college graduates. But again, it’s not because I’m smarter or they’re smarter or better. It’s because of school choice in Indiana that they ended up here.”
Lessons in quality education extend beyond academics
For Keziah Adams, Cheryl’s 23-year-old daughter, the experience of moving to the private school “prepared her for life.”
When Keziah started at the private school, she was surprised to learn she was significantly behind her peers in several subject areas, especially grammar and writing.
“I was doing so well at my previous school that I was taking classes that were technically higher-up than my peers,” Keziah explained. “So, it was really difficult that first year in the new school.”
“I came from an environment where we rarely had homework,” Keziah explained, referring to the charter school. “We would start an assignment on one topic, never finish it, and then just move on to the next topic.”
Keziah quickly saw the difference in expectations between schools—her first bad grade at the private school was largely due to simply not answering several answers in the assignment.
“That was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me,” Keziah said. “I learned quickly I needed to be finishing all my work, and that meant working on it outside of school, too.” Something Keziah wasn’t used to in her previous school setting.
The private school offered a special class for Keziah, her twin brother, and other students. The teacher worked closely with the students, and that individualized instruction helped Keziah get up to speed and transition into honors English by her sophomore year.
By the time she reached college, her mastery of subjects like English and math made her freshman year a lot smoother than many of her peers, who she said struggled to meet college-level expectations for their work. She ended her freshman year with a 4.0 G.P.A. and noticed she was more diligent than many of her peers in the years to come—always attending class and efficiently completing her homework.
Learning how to study and complete work in and outside of school helped her not only in academic settings but in her professional life, too.
“I have a lot of business needs that need to be done quickly,” Keziah explained, “I learned in school how to manage my time.” And she also learned the importance of diligence and completion. “Whether the request is ‘let’s do this right now’ or ‘we need this done by Friday,’ school taught me not to cram.”
These may seem like basic lessons that all students should be learning, but for Keziah and her brother, it was only because of school choice and their mother’s persistence that they learned them in high school.
Keziah learned more than just new content through this experience of struggling, working hard, and succeeding. She learned valuable lessons in character that are helping her to be an independent, successful adult contributing to society in ways that are meaningful to her and beneficial to others. That’s an opportunity every child should have, and options like Indiana’s school choice voucher program are making it happen.