SCHOOL reform has been on the national agenda so long now that it's in danger of eliciting glassy-eyed stares like those on the faces of bored schoolchildren. Are there any new ideas to be had?
In fact, what's new may be less the ideas - whether better standards and assessments, technology-enhanced learning, or more autonomy for teachers - than institutional ways of applying them. Cities and districts around the United States are busily diverging from traditional school management. Some of these experiments are promising; some have yet to demonstrate success.
One promising approach is charter schools, an avenue of innovation that is widening every year. These schools, sanctioned by legislation in 19 states, are public institutions cut free from most of the regulations and controls that typically constrict teachers and administrators.
Charters can experiment with new curricula, focus on an area like science or music, or, in some cases, hire teachers on the basis of career experience rather than standard credentials. Parents choose to send their children to these schools, and the students take with them the amount of public money it would have cost to educate them in a traditional school. Charter schools broaden options for families and students, and they open public education to methods and models it might normally spurn.
A second way of applying new ideas is what its advocates call school choice. In its purest form, it gives public funds to parents in the form of a voucher and lets them use it where they want. Modified forms of school choice are under way in a number of states, but the major issue has usually been whether the vouchers can be used at religious schools. That constitutional wall should not be lowered.
But the news is not all good. A notable recent setback was the cancellation of a contract between Education Alternatives Inc., a private school-management firm, and the Baltimore public schools. EAI has run 10 Baltimore schools over the past couple of years, to mixed reviews.
Few deny that EAI worked some wonders in cleaning up neglected urban schools and transforming them into places more conducive to learning. But even with millions invested, the private managers never had the time necessary to deliver the test-score improvements they promised.
They were also undercut by determined opposition from teachers' unions. Finally, the enterprise foundered on the school district's tenuous finances and its unwillingness to put payments to EAI ahead of other obligations.
EAI's other big undertaking - the management of the Hartford, Conn., public schools - is hanging on by a threat. Despite these reversals, private management can't be ruled out as a reform option. Public Strategies Inc. is successfully managing the Minneapolis public schools, and the Edison Project, another for-profit educational firm, has contracts to run charter schools in Massachusetts.
A diversity of reform approaches is natural and useful in a country with America's breadth of traditions and jurisdictions. Parents, teachers, and administrators who truly put children first will learn from each approach lessons that can be applied in any kind of school. When education reform is faced that way, everybody wins.