According to Ed Bastia, the time for school choice is now. Bastia is a member of the Rhode Island Families for School Choice, a group that believes parents should have access to all forms of quality …
According to Ed Bastia, the time for school choice is now. Bastia is a member of the Rhode Island Families for School Choice, a group that believes parents should have access to all forms of quality educational options for their children and should be empowered to select the best educational option that meets the needs of their children. The organization, in partnership with the American Federation for Children (AFC) will host an all school fair on Jan. 22 at the Crowne Plaza (801 Greenwich Ave., Warwick) from noon to 3 p.m.
Many people hear the term ‘school choice’ but don’t understand what it is. Hera Varmah, who’s the event’s keynote speaker, said the term has been politicized and partisan.
“In the fight of school choice, a lot of parents hear that it’s a bad thing,” said Varmah, adding that school choice can be anything from a non-traditional school to a scholarship program.
Varmah, who worked as a fellow for the AFC and now serves as the organization’s communications and events assistant, said more parents throughout the country understand what school choice is; however, word needs to continue being spread.
Bastia said Rhode Island has never had an all school fair and the Jan. 22 event will feature 28 schools, which include a variety of charter, private, religious based, technical, online and virtual options. There will be program demonstrations, snacks, raffles, a photo booth, face painting, a balloon person and DJ. Rhode Island Families for School Choice originally planned to host the all school fair last year, however, the event was postponed due to an uptick in Covid cases.
Varmah will deliver the event’s keynote address. As someone who’s the product of school choice, Varmah will share her story of how her parents wanted a value-based education for her. Specifically, she will share how her brother, who’s now a chemical engineer, failed the second grade twice.
“If he had stayed in a public school, he would not be where he is today,” Varmah said in a Jan. 9 interview.
Hearing from someone who’s gone through a school choice program can be beneficial to parents, which Varmah hopes helps individuals once they hear from her. Her message to Rhode Island families is to keep up the fight for school choice because every voice is needed. School choice didn’t happen overnight; it included organizations getting involved to help parents speak their mind – whether it's at a local school board or state legislator – about education.
Bastia hopes Varmah’s speech creates a fire under people and motivates them. He added that he doesn’t think parents in Rhode Island believe their legislators work for them. Instead, the thought is because these people are in office, you just go along with what they say. Instead, parents should contact elected officials and say the time is now and that they want more school choice options.
Bastia expressed that there is limited school choice in Rhode Island as compared to other states. For starters, charter seats are limited and based on a lottery, there are a few technical seats assigned out of district and – while there are private and religious based schools – parents have to pay out of pocket and that is not always an option for struggling families.
He added that the state has an education corporate tax credit program that is not very well known and assists students engaging in school choice. According to Bastia, the program allows eligible corporations to divert some of their tax obligations away from the state and contribute them to a scholarship granting organization which then disburses those funds in the form of a tuition assistance payment for tuition at a non-public school.
Bastia said many people and businesses want to participate in this program but availability is limited. The program began in 2006 and was capped at $1 million. In 2013, the monetary value was increased to $1.5 million and has remained stagnant since. Meanwhile, he said the Rhode Island Department of Education reports spending $2.4 billion on education each year.
Bastia, who’s now retired, used to work full-time as a business administrator for the Diocese of Providence. Even though he doesn’t have children in school, he advocates for school choice because “it's the right thing to do for all the young families in the state and neighborhood.”
Bastia would like to see an increase so more businesses can take advantage of it – which will help students.
“From a financial perspective, every one of those students enrolled in a non-public school on the back of a tax credit scholarship is one less student in the public sector,” Bastia said.
Varmah added that there’s this thought that if parents are given different options, then they will leave the public schools. Growing up in Florida, Varmah said while she participated in school choice, she had friends who remained in public schools. If schools feel that their families are going to leave, then the real question is why does the school think this will happen if parents are given the option to choose and what do they need to fix?
The AFC “seeks to empower families, especially lower-income families, with the freedom to choose the best K-12 education for their children” and works in states across the country to help parents find the options available to them. They also push for legislators to pass more programs that fund students, not systems. AFC’s communications team is finding ways to go around schools and talk about school choice. They are now focusing on areas like Iowa and Nebraska to inform the public and let them know about different program options.
The group hopes to ignite a spark that will get more families involved so that they will not be afraid to reach out to their elected officials and demand more educational options for their children. Bastia and Varmah are excited for the upcoming event on Jan. 22. While there is no charge for admission, registration is requested at www.edchoiceri.org/events.
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