Opening Day

They're back.

You know what I mean. All those school-bus yellow signals that it's time for students to get serious. Ads for locker-sized backpacks. Marketers pumping the perfect pencil. Sales on shoes sure to make you smarter.

There's nothing subtle about it. Sure, you may be escaping to the beach even as we speak. But you're taking a pad and making lists, right? Getting organized. Thinking lunch boxes or Internet hot lines to a child's college dorm.

Getting excited. After all, most of us know that the year really starts now, not in January. Even the kids are anticipating a new beginning, for all the talk of no more sleeping in or hanging out. (Overlook those chats about the new teachers who are direct descendants of Attila the Hun.)

Students aren't the only ones facing new challenges. Public schools face an almost-unprecedented roster of demands and reforms: a wholesale reordering of bilingual education in California; inclusive special ed; high-stakes tests. Not to mention character ed, relationship ed, conflict-resolution ed. This, while keeping everyone safe - and competing with charter schools and private-school tuition vouchers. All are issues sure to get air time in November's midterm elections.

Universities, too, face an increasingly diverse task. What about housing? Balancing and funding competing student interests? Keeping tuition in check? Offering remedial classes? Determining - yet again - the parameters of a liberal-arts education?

Distinguishing fact from fad is something of a perpetual quest in American education. It's not always a popular one: Many teachers are donning new armor to resist the experts' latest haute couture. What's being proposed - and how it's being received in public and private schools and universities around the country - will be our focus as we head into this year's offerings in formal education.

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