New Choices in Education Will Drive Broader Reform


EDUCATION reform as it is being implemented across the country has four main threads: money, equity, decentralization, and standards. Within the context of the established structure of public education, these have generated reasonable attempts to improve student outcomes. Unfortunately, it is the structure of public education itself that is in greatest need of reform. To break through the status quo we must dismantle the monopoly structure of public education through deregulation, independently managed schools, and choice.

More than 90 percent of school-age children attend public schools. With a few recent exceptions, children and parents have only one source for public education: their local school district. Local school departments are harnessed together by similar state departments of education and a web of federal laws governing public schools. Of equal importance is the pervasive presence of collective-bargaining agreements between school districts and local affiliates of the two national teachers unions. Even though there are thousands of nominally independent providers of public schooling, these separate entities do not compete with one another.

OK, so public education is a monopoly. So what? Well, like all monopolies the public education system has fallen into stagnation, if not decline, and it is marked by a preoccupation with politics and bureaucracy, rather than customers and quality. As has been well documented, scores on tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) have declined over the past 30 years and are now stagnant. This decline in academic performance took place during a period of substantial real spending growth. Some insight into the cause of this educational stagflation can be gleaned from the fact that less than 45 percent of all employees in the US education work force are teachers. In 1950 more than 70 percent of the work force were teachers.

Bureaucratic influences

Underlying these numbers is the growing influence of politics and bureaucracy. Increasingly, resources are directed toward those programs with the most vocal political organizations, the most adept legal advocates, and the most entrenched bureaucracies.

Educational improvement will happen because of what goes on in schools and homes, not because of government actions. But policy changes are needed to make improvement possible, specifically through the creation of a real education marketplace that will free educators and parents to take direct responsibility for what they do best, namely caring for and teaching children.

There is a long list of laws and regulations governing education that should be repealed or rewritten, but for the sake of brevity I will focus on only two: special and bilingual education. There is a simple concept behind both of these laws: All children have a right to a free and appropriate education. Unfortunately, both laws go beyond this simple principle by enshrining at both the federal and state levels an array of procedural protections and standards of service that overburden schools, establish perverse incentives, and obscure educational objectives. These statutes should be overhauled to put the emphasis back where it belongs, on access and learning, rather than on process.

Charter schools freed of red tape

The second element to structural reform is independently managed schools. There is an education-reform brush fire sweeping the nation: charter schools. Five years ago there was only one state with a charter-school law. Today, there are 20. Charter schools are independently managed public schools. These mission-driven schools are conceived and operated by management teams drawn from educators, parents, business executives, and community leaders. Public funding is tied directly to enrollment: The more students a school has, the more money it receives. While charter schools are freed of local school district policies and collective-bargaining agreements, they must comply with most federal and state laws governing public schools. Charter schools may not discriminate in their admissions and may not charge tuition.

Beyond providing new choices for parents, charter schools are helping to drive broader reform. The spur of competition has produced the first stirrings of change in many school districts. The Boston public school system, for example, has launched five so-called ''pilot schools,'' based on the charter school model.

The final element of structural reform is parental and professional choice. One of the reasons charter schools work is that they are schools of choice. Students are not assigned to charter schools; they enroll because their parents want them to be there. Educators choose to work in a charter school because they believe in what the school stands for. This organic commitment and shared community is almost impossible to achieve in a system based on standardized policies and student assignment, and it is at the core of successful schools, both public and private.

In a market-driven system, there would be a broad spectrum of educational models from which parents may choose to fit the specific needs of their children. Some schools might choose to be run much as they are today, by local school committees and school departments. Some schools would decide to remain within the overall structure of the established system, but with greater autonomy and budgetary control, like Boston's pilot schools.

Public education is not about who runs the schools; it's about whom the schools serve. An educational marketplace would produce a system of schools serving the public, rather than a unitary public school system.

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