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Parent navigators are worth the investment for school choice supporters

Back View Of Female Headmaster Interview Father And Preteen,Girl

This piece was originally published by the Fordham Institute.

From 2015 to 2018, the start of spring meant I could expect to hear from parents across Florida. At the time, I worked for Step Up Students, the Florida-based organization that administers the nation’s largest education scholarship (i.e., voucher) program. My job was not in customer service. I was the editor of a blog focused on school choice issues. But because my name, phone number, and email address were prominently displayed on the website, desperate parents would track me down with questions about where to enroll their students for the next school year:

“My daughter receives a voucher for special education students. I think she needs a hearing aid, but the district won’t prioritize her for an evaluation because we attend a private school.”

“I hear charter schools don’t take kids like mine. Is that true?”

“Can you recommend a school in the Jacksonville area for my son who has autism?”

I would try my best to help—often forwarding parents along to a colleague with relevant expertise.

The experience seared two facts into my brain. First, for parents across Florida, having meaningful choices in where their children learn has been life-changing. Second, they often feel alone navigating this growing array of options.

An under-appreciated provision contained in recent draft legislation in Florida would make history by codifying a new role in our state’s educational ecosystem to solve that problem: “choice navigators.”

As its bill number implies, HB 1 is a top priority of House Speaker Paul Renner. It’s making headlines because it would dramatically expand educational options, converting the state’s existing school choice scholarship programs into education savings accounts that, within five years, would be available to all students.

Recently, school choice advocates—nationally and in Florida—have dramatically increased their ambitions. Legislatures have shifted away from small-bore programs available to targeted populations, like low-income families or students with disabilities, toward sweeping programs that offer scholarships to all, or nearly all, students in their states. And by expanding choice via education savings accounts, policymakers are opening the door to an “a la carte” approach to education. Parents can choose schools for their kids—but they can also choose tutoring programs, enrichment activities, summer camps, and more.

In the new choice-for-all landscape, navigators will play a critical role ensuring all students—not just the privileged—are able to take advantage of the options these new and expanded programs make available.

Similar legislation is advancing in other states, but Florida’s navigator concept is unique. Parents would be required to meet annually with a choice navigator, review their child’s test scores, and select potential options that meet their needs. This would fill an often-overlooked void for parents who might otherwise feel moved to seek the advice of a hapless blog editor.

More states expanding educational options for families should explore strategies to fill that void.

Parents—especially those from marginalized backgrounds and those of students with disabilities—face barriers choosing schools for their children, accessing an array of out-of-school learning opportunities, and fighting their school systems for support their children need. Devising innovative strategies to help families overcome those barriers has been a focus of our work at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, where I’m an innovation fellow and senior writer. Organizations are springing up to help.

The role of parent navigators

The work of navigators could go beyond the process of choosing learning environments. It can also involve helping students understand their learning needs and goals (including preparation for college or career transitions), gaining access to advanced courses and career learning opportunities, or supporting parents advocating for special education screening when schools drag their feet.

Regular meetings with navigators who help parents interpret test results and other measures of student progress could help close the honesty gap, which has widened after the Covid-19 pandemic. Many parents believe their students are doing fine (thanks in part to strong report cards they’re bringing home), but state and national assessment results show many have major gaps in their learning and could benefit from tutoring and other help in which they currently show limited interest.

How can navigators be funded?

Ed Navigator and ReSchool Colorado have devised innovative business models that provide learning advice to families as a workplace benefit. Other navigator organizations, like Memphis Lift, have grassroots civil rights activism in their DNA. All of them face the same conundrum: Parents value the help they provide, but there isn’t an existing mechanism for funding their efforts at a scale that would allow them to reach a sizable number of families.

Public funding is the obvious solution, but how might that work? Florida has a funding model that may be adapted for this purpose. The state’s scholarship funding organizations (including Step up for Students) are allowed to use up to 3 percent for every scholarship they fund to cover administrative expenses. This funding—or, perhaps, a small percentage increase to account for the extra workload—would provide a simple, scalable mechanism for funding navigator services. States creating new programs could design administrative fees (which tend to be much higher than Florida’s) to cover navigator services from the start—and make them available to diverse organizations, including those that do not administer scholarships.

A second option would be to place parents in charge of navigator funding by designating navigator services as an authorized ESA expenditure. Right now, state laws typically allow parents to use ESA funding to pay for a limited set of services, like tutoring, school tuition, and online courses. Simply adding qualified navigators to this list of authorized services may be the simplest path to a reliable navigator funding. The main drawback is that it wouldn’t address the cost of navigation services for families who might choose education options beyond ESAs, such as charter schools or magnet schools.

The boldest solution would be for states to set aside categorical funding to provide every K–12 student with a navigator. Before going this route, they could fund a small-scale grant initiative to solicit bids from organizations who could operate local pilots in a small number of school districts. This would help give legislators a reasonable estimate of the costs and caseloads that organizations could bear, as well as the value to parents.

The funding question remains unresolved in Florida’s legislation, but it will be a critical issue to watch as the concept develops before the lawmakers adjourns in May.

What about governance?

Legislators will also have to figure out a governance arrangement for overseeing this new army of navigators. State government agencies are likely a poor fit for this role. Most ESA programs are administered in either the state education or treasury departments. The former often lack grassroots connections to parents, and the latter typically have little education expertise. Enlisting districts would also be a bad idea, given their incentives to steer parents toward their own choice offerings.

To reach diverse families, states could contract with a diverse mix of nonprofits like grassroots parent, disability advocacy, and community organizations with existing ties to marginalized communities, as well as new organizations focused on providing navigation services. Scholarship-providing organizations like Step up for Students might be good candidates, too.

Who is qualified to work as a navigator?

There’s a lot we don’t know about navigators. What training and regulations do they require? What business models are most effective at serving families effectively at scale? How many families could a single navigator serve effectively?

Experience with advice providers outside education suggests there should be some screening for navigator qualifications. A study published last year in the American Journal of Sociology of the thriving cottage industry of serially unemployed “career coaches” suggests it’s possible for charlatans to get paid dispensing guidance if they excel at self-promotion and conveying empathy. Students only have one chance at fourth grade; bad advice selecting learning options could be worse than no advice at all.

At the same time, uncertainty calls for humility. States should experiment, design diverse approaches to navigator services, commission research on which approaches are effective, and adjust approaches based on what they learn. This uncertainty also suggests leaders should be cautious about requiring students to use navigators.

While light-touch regulation may be prudent, an “anything goes” approach would be reckless. For example, navigators often handle sensitive information. Under Florida’s current draft legislation, they would transmit student standardized test scores to Florida State University researchers who evaluate school choice programs. At a minimum, regulations should ensure that navigators can safely work with children and families, and that families have assurance that their students’ data, which navigators often must access to do their jobs effectively, is secure.

In addition, lawmakers should guard against self-dealing, where schools or other educational providers set up navigator organizations that essentially serve as marketing arms. Navigators should have a fiduciary duty to offer advice in the best interest of the students and families they serve—not the interests of any providers that might hope to enroll students and receive a share of their scholarship funds.

Navigators matter: States should fund them

Navigators’ work has value in jurisdictions that do not have ESAs. Existing organizations support families in cities from D.C. to Denver without such programs. However, once lawmakers create programs that allow parents to direct funding to a variety of education providers—some public, some private—navigators become essential.

Advocates for the expansion of universal education scholarship accounts have embraced a slogan: Fund students, not systems. I’d like to propose a friendly amendment: Fund students and systems. Create new systems devoted to helping parents find the right options for their child, assemble learning experiences tailored to their needs, and overcome barriers along the way.

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