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New Educational Opportunities For Our Children
A growing awareness that America’s current K-12 education system is producing dismal results and that incrementalist strategies for reforming it (smaller class sizes, added graduation requirements, etc.) haven’t made much difference. Bolder alternatives—including those that overturn yesterday’s axioms and power relations—are now conceivable. Spreading the recognition that “one size fits all” education is not working very well in our pluralistic democracy. As people demanded more options, new types of schools emerged, along with new ways to allow families to choose between them. Not only are some of these new schools better suited to America’s diverse educational needs, but the marketplace of parental choice also helps hold them accountable for student outcomes. Of course, such reasoning is familiar from the old voucher debate, but it is no longer just an argument.
People who want to leave a decaying and overcrowded continent with public schools to improve their lives and the prospects of their children on the newer islands are less willing to say they must stay put. Polls show growing support for school choice. More Americans now support than oppose allowing parents to send their school-aged children to any public, private or parochial school of their choice at government expense. Up to three-fifths of public school parents say they would change their child’s school if they could afford it. With approximately 56 million young people currently enrolled in America’s public schools, that means tens of millions of families are potential candidates for choice programs.
Seismic shifts can be seen in the organizational arrangements of public and private enterprises of all kinds, shifts designed to make them more productive and efficient. On the public side, this is sometimes called “government discovery.” It includes outsourcing, decentralization and new incentives and accountability arrangements. In both sectors, the goal is to achieve better results (satisfied customers, more performance, higher performance, etc.) with fewer wasted resources. While this organizational revolution is only slowly making its way into K-12 education, it is clearly starting to do so. This development creates a healthy environment for the emergence of different kinds of schools and for people who demand the freedom – and the means – to take advantage of new educational opportunities for their children. According to our estimation, today’s map of education contains – in addition to traditional public and private institutions – a dozen other forms of schools and education.
1. Magnet schools. These are typically district schools that are purpose-built special schools with specific themes or emphases: music and art, science and technology, Hispanic cultures, etc. The first magnets were primarily intended to integrate schools by attracting youth to distant classrooms without mandatory busing transport. But magnets now serve multiple purposes. In fact, several communities have converted all of their schools to magnet schools, promoting comprehensive public school choice programs.
2. Alternative Schools: Developed primarily for difficult and misbehaving youth, these are not so much the schools that parents choose as the schools that the district chooses for kids who are struggling in “regular” classrooms. These are most often high schools with low student-to-teacher ratios, adjusted curricula and flexible schedules.
3. Charter Schools: From elementary, to Montessori methods, to schools for disabled children, with hundreds of other models in between, charter schools are a fascinating hybrid: public schools with some features of private schools. As public institutions, they are open to all who wish to participate, paid for by tax dollars, and accountable to public bodies for their performance (especially student outcomes) and good behavior (eg non-discrimination). Today, charters straddle the line from being a marginal option for a relative handful of disaffected families to becoming a major source of educational alternatives for millions of children.
4. Home education. Historically, homeschoolers were religious families dissatisfied with the public school curriculum and unable to (or unable to afford) private schools. Recently, more parents are citing reasons such as mediocrity in public education. An interesting option is young people who attend school part-time and study part-time at home.
5. Schools within schools: There is no reason why one school building should contain only one educational program. Installing more than one program in the same building makes it easy to offer learning alternatives without the worry of bricks and mortar. It also reduces risk; if the new program doesn’t work, students can be reintegrated into regular classes.
6. Mini-schools. Schools with some of the freedoms of charter schools, but also with distinctive curricular themes and an intimate scope so sorely lacking in the city’s mainstream public high schools.
7. Technical preparation. This concept is particularly suitable for young people who are more interested in work than academics.
8. Afterschool: Partly because of changing family habits and work schedules, and partly because of dissatisfaction with mainstream schools, more and more families (and churches, community organizations, etc.) are supplementing their children’s schooling with a wide variety of programs. and offers. Some resemble the “juku” – packed schools – in Japan. Many are non-profit, but some of the fastest growing are owned by commercial firms.
9. “Proprietary” schools. Today we are witnessing the emergence of entire chains of for-profit schools, complete with shareholders and corporate managers.
10. Design-based schools: Alternatives to the well-known school model of the 19th century are emerging. Bridging the gap between R&D project and system reform has created and is now marketing distinctive propositions for innovative schools.
11. Virtual schools. Using the Internet and e-mail, they can communicate with their teachers (and with lesson plans, homework, etc.) without leaving home. In the old days, families living in the mountains or sent to distant lands could get their children’s study plans cash on delivery. Technology today allows for “classrooms” that are open 24 hours a day and online access to teachers.
12. Privately Managed Public Schools: Nearly a dozen firms in the United States are in the “school management” business, committing—through charter or district management contracts—to operate public schools and making a profit in the process. While it remains to be seen whether investor profits will follow, it is clear that public education in the United States is becoming amenable to “outsourcing.”
It is no longer strange to send your child to the school of your choice rather than the school assigned by the headmaster’s office. Many avoid political controversies because they result from a state or district deciding on its own that it can’t serve certain children in its public schools — but must see to it that they get an education. This practice is well established in the “special education” world, where young people with severe or esoteric disabilities (or disputing parents) can invoke federal and state laws and district policies to gain access to private schools at public expense. But disability is no longer the only reason for such measures.
Districts also hire private providers of specialized educational services, such as remedial instruction for disadvantaged youth provided under the federal Title I program. Although many districts have long outsourced busing, building maintenance, and cafeteria operations (and purchased everything from chalk to computers from private vendors ), the new thing is to allow private companies to provide real teaching – and run entire schools.
The political heat and noise level will begin to rise as we move from state-selected private education to a parent-selected type. Yet many jurisdictions routinely subsidize the marginal costs of private education. Rather than directly fund private schools, some jurisdictions implement their tax codes to help parents with tuition, fees and other out-of-pocket expenses. In several celebrated—and controversial—cases, the state or district actually pays tuition for private schools.
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