Elsener: A Life in Education Reveals Power, Necessity of Choice

The following guest blog is part of our weeklong celebration of National School Choice Week:

I have spent my life working to advance the educational opportunities of the students in my community – as a teacher, principal, superintendent, foundation executive committed to education, and now a university president. Without exception, my experiences have made clear to me that it is in the best of interest of students and their parents/guardians that they have many options available to them to meet their educational needs.

There are undoubtedly many important projects, programs and initiatives that have been pursued in support of education over the years. Yet, I know of none more important than placing the power over how a child is educated in the hands of her parents/guardians. It is true that not every parent/guardian will make perfect decisions, but in the main and over the long haul, they are vastly more knowledgeable and invested in what is best for their child than anyone else — including school officials.

Parents/guardians have seen the number of school options available to them multiply tenfold in recent years – charter schools, parochial schools, private schools and public schools among them. This choice has given parents/guardians great influence over not only the number and variety of options available to them but also the quality of the education offered in each program.

It is evident from watching choice work in the marketplace in Indiana that it has brought many creative schools to fruition and challenged the existing schools (parochial, private, traditional public, etc.) to look for innovative ways to become more attuned to the needs of the students and families they serve. In contrast, social structures that emerge from a monopoly are inherently less innovative and attuned to those they serve. When options are valued and innovation is rewarded, excellent outcomes can and will be achieved, especially when related to the provision of integral social services like education.

Historically, Indiana has struggled to advance educational outcomes to a level that meets the needs of the times. But in recent years, the ground-breaking reforms of state leaders have laid the foundation for a “new spring” of options that will be advantageous not only for students and their parents/guardians but for educators as well.

It has been exciting for me to see so many outstanding educators capitalize on this new ability to start and/or serve in new, pioneering schools and take advantage of the opportunity to use state resources to develop new and innovative approaches for student learning. Great principals, great educators have been given a renewed sense of professional purpose and an openness to engaging an entrepreneurial spirit in the development of programs that strategically address our children’s educational needs. I am fully confident that in the coming years these new options will improve student learning outcomes, attendance levels and graduation rates to such an extent that Indiana will ascend to the top of national educational attainment levels.

School systems that thrive are those which emerge from an environment where parents, students and educators have many options through which to pursue intellectual growth and development. Educational offerings that emerge from a monopoly where one set of adults has singular power over education – its offerings, delivery and cost – will almost certainly lead to stagnation. School choice is the path by which Indiana will see its students reach heights of educational excellence heretofore unforeseen and ensure that the thousands of wonderful educators in our state are allowed to fully engage their many talents to bring innovation and instructional entrepreneurism to our quest to develop every child’s abilities to the fullest.


Dan Elsener is president of Marian University in Indianapolis.