WASHINGTON — For the first time this century, US public schools are looking over their shoulders, as new competitors gear up to offer choices that families have never had before.
For traditional public schools, the message is: Improve or watch the system dissolve into a thousand points of schooling - religious schools, private secular schools, publicly supported charter schools, home schools, or virtual schools on a screen.
Public schools are taking on more kids with a wider range of abilities, languages, and family situations than ever. In the 1970s, when courts ordered busing for racial balance, they bused. When Washington churned out more regulations, they hired staff to fill out the forms. When the experts said to knock down the classroom walls or throw away the phonics books, many did, only to reverse the order when the students stopped learning.
Through it all, public schools began to lose their most-valuable asset: confidence of the American people. The opening decades of the next century will be about how to get it back.
Employers and colleges say that high school graduates can't read or write, or understand math well enough to start a job or take courses. Less than 4 in 10 Americans say they still have confidence in public schools, especially urban ones. Only 1 in 5 public- school teachers say they feel well qualified to teach in a modern classroom, according to a 1998 survey by the US Department of Education. Most parents, black and white, say that black kids are in bad schools and that more money won't fix the problem.
As a result, many people are rethinking the whole enterprise. Public schools no longer hold a monopoly, even for poor parents. Failing schools risk being taken over by the state, and all schools face new competition for students, teachers, and funds. More states and school districts are contracting with private providers. While changes are still nascent, they promise to shape a future that looks quite different from today.
*Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have passed charter-school laws to create a new kind of public school - free from much regulation but accountable for results. Charters may hire teachers without traditional credentials, set a longer school day and year, and choose a curriculum. More than 1,100 are currently operating.
*The first nationwide private K-12 scholarship fund is offering vouchers to help poor kids exit failing schools. The New York-based Children's Scholarship Fund will give away 40,000 scholarships in an April 22 lottery. Awards will partially cover private-school tuition costs.
*As many as 1.2 million children are being schooled at home. Once stoutly resisted by public authorities, home schooling is now legal in all states. More than 1 in 3 Americans say that they support the option, and a cottage industry of private companies is growing up to service it.
Some on the frontier of the new educational marketplace, like Children's Scholarship Fund co-founder Theodore Forstmann, say that they wouldn't mind seeing the public-school system disappear altogether. "I just want to see better choices for poor kids," he says.
Others see competition as the salvation of a system that spends $350 billion a year, but has not been able to budge overall achievement much beyond stagnation or to keep up internationally.
Public education has seen reform waves before. Nineteenth-century reformers created public schools as a way to make good citizens out of waves of new immigrants. At the turn of the 20th century, Progressive Era reformers and business allies created professional associations and an ethos of the expert. Courts and social movements in the 1960s and '70s added demands for desegregation, bilingual education, multiculturalism, and programs for gifted children and those with disabilities.
What distinguishes the wave that is sweeping into the 21st century is the language of the market that infuses it: Parents and students are "consumers." Achievement is profit. Schools that aren't showing a profit are bankrupt, and their superintendents are replaced by "CEOs."
Above all, competition in education means measurement. The good reform includes performance goals and is data driven.
Washington parent Angelia Orr is just beginning to think of herself as a consumer. Sending her daughter, Ashley, to a better school outside the District was never an option, nor was paying tuition at a private school. But then she saw an ad on a bus for new charter schools and started to make some calls.
"I was afraid of sending her out of our neighborhood into the middle-school environment. They have metal detectors there," she says. Instead, she enrolled her in the Seed Public Charter School, one of 19 new charters and the city's first public boarding school. "It was hard to send my baby away, but I was impressed with the people at Seed School. She's retaining what she's learning," she says.
A few years ago, the only way out of traditional public schools was to move or to come up with often-hefty, private-school tuition. Now, about 5 percent of the District's 75,000 students are in public charters, a number that could nearly double next fall.
And more than 5,000 families are applying for scholarships from a private foundation to simply exit the system. This month, Harvard University researchers are testing kids who won awards last year from the Washington Scholarship Fund to see if they do better than peers who stayed in the public system.
If results are positive - as they were in a similar study in New York City last year - they could build pressure for vouchers or tax credits.
You choose, we'll pay
The idea that the public should fund choices for parents in failing schools is also gaining ground in the courts. The US Supreme Court gave a yellow light to voucher proposals last November when it refused to review a decision upholding Milwaukee's voucher system (story, page 14). In January, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that state's income-tax credit for individuals who fund private K-12 scholarship programs. And at least five states, including Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Texas, are raising the question of vouchers this legislative session.
To date, voucher proposals in California, Oregon, and Colorado have all failed by wide margins. Polls show that Americans strongly favor reforming the system rather than dismantling it.
But the most recent round of voucher proposals focuses on poor families. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is proposing scholarships of about $4,000 a year for students in public schools that don't meet state standards for two years out of four. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Ridge (R) is proposing vouchers for students in poor schools and more freedom for districts to improve.
The charter movement is also paving the way for a market model of education. Arizona passed strong charter-school laws in 1994. The principle was to "strap the money to the back of the child," says state superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan.
Last year, Arizona passed the nation's first school-finance plan based on this principle that set aside equal funding for all students in the state. The next step is Ms. Keegan's proposal to allow poor children to take that funding to the school of their choice.
"Public education will look vastly different in the future: There will be private schools, public charter schools, independent study, and home arrangements, all threaded together by state standards and other measures of accountability," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a clearinghouse on school choice. "The concept of public education and having a system is critical. But we need a system of learning opportunities, not a system of similar schools."
Much of this movement has been led by business. In Texas, business executives drafted legislation that established tough accountability for schools. Some 23 states have passed laws allowing school takeovers. Many business people say there has been a disconnect between business and public schools that has forced end-runs to the legislature.
Scrambling for a response
Meanwhile, public schools are scrambling for a response to the new marketplace. While the public is still divided on the question of vouchers, there is some evidence that support for them is increasing. But for teachers' unions and many administrators, vouchers risk balkanizing US education. New York Superintendent Rudy Crew threatened to resign when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed them. American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldmann calls vouchers "a program for a few that threatens the education of all children."
Bob Chase, head of the 2.4 million-member National Teachers Association, says, "Our schools are making tangible progress. And they deserve to be supported, not abandoned."
But both unions are adopting reforms that would have been unthinkable for some members a decade ago, including high-stakes testing, charters, and peer review to remove unfit teachers.
Public schools are also breaking the mold. When achievement in Chicago public schools bottomed out, the legislature turned the system over to the mayor, who set up a corporate board and appointed a chief executive officer.
"We set up goals for each department that you are expected to reach or face consequences," says Chicago CEO Paul Vallas. "We have raised test scores, increased attendance. After 20 years of declining enrollments, we have 20,000 new students.
"Public schools shouldn't fear competition," he adds. "We welcome charters. We welcome private vouchers."