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New Educational Opportunities For Our Children

There is a growing awareness that the current US K-12 education system is producing unfortunate results and that incrementalist strategies for reforming it (smaller class sizes, increased graduation requirements, etc.) have not made much of a difference. Bolder alternatives can now be considered—including ones that eliminate the axioms and Yesterday’s power relations. The expanding recognition of “one-size-fits-all” education is not working well in our pluralistic democracy. As people have demanded more options, new types of schools have emerged along with new ways to allow families to choose between them. Not only are some of those innovative schools appropriate more to America’s diverse educational needs, but the marketplace of parental choice also helps hold them accountable for student achievement. Such reasoning, of course, is familiar from the old voucher debate, but it’s no longer just a matter of debate.

People who want to leave the decaying and overcrowded mainland of public schools to improve the lives and prospects of children in the newer islands are less willing to be told they must stay put. Polls show growing support for school choice. More Americans now favor than oppose allowing parents to send their school-age children to whatever public, private, or church-affiliated school they choose at government expense. As many as 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 US public schools, this means that tens of millions of families are potential candidates for choice programs.

Seismic changes 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 “reinventing government.” This includes outsourcing, decentralization and new incentives and accountability. In both sectors, the goal is to achieve better results (satisfied customers, greater output, high achievements, etc.) with fewer wasted resources. Although this organizational revolution is only slowly permeating K-12 education, it is clearly beginning to do so. These developments create a healthy environment for different types of schools to emerge and for people to demand the freedom – and through them – to take advantage of new educational opportunities for their children. By our count, today’s education map contains – in addition to traditional public and private institutions – a dozen additional forms of schools and education.

1. Magnet schools. Usually district-based, these are special schools purposely created with particular themes or emphases: music and art, science and technology, Hispanic cultures, etc. The first magnets were primarily designed to integrate schools by attracting young people to remote classrooms without mandatory busing. But magnets now serve several purposes. Indeed, individual communities have turned all their schools into magnet schools, thereby backing comprehensive public school choice programs.

2. Alternative schools: Developed primarily for difficult-to-educate and misbehaving youth, these are not so much schools that parents choose as schools that the district chooses for children who have problems in “regular” classes. These are usually high schools with low student-teacher ratios, changing curricula and flexible schedules.

3. Charter schools: From back-to-basics 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 anyone who wants to participate, paid with tax money, and are accountable to public authorities for their performance (especially student achievement) and decent behavior (eg non-discrimination). Today, charters straddle the line between being a marginal option for a relative handful of disaffected families and becoming a major source of educational alternatives for millions of children.

4. Home education. Historically, homeschoolers were religious families who were unhappy with the public school curriculum and uncomfortable with (or unable to afford) private schools. Recently, more parents cite reasons such as mediocrity in the public education system. An intriguing version involves young people attending school part-time and teaching at home part-time.

5. Schools-within-schools: There is no reason for one school building to contain only one education program. Adapting more than one program to the same building makes it easy to offer training alternatives without worrying about bricks and mortar. It also cuts risk; If the new plan doesn’t work, students can be readmitted to regular classes.

6. Small schools. Schools with some of the freedoms of charter schools, but also with unique subjects and the intimate scale that is so acutely absent from regular public high schools in the city.

7. Technological schools. The concept is particularly suitable for young people who are more interested in jobs than academics.

8. Day Schools: Partly because of changing family patterns and work schedules, and partly because of dissatisfaction with regular schools, more and more families (and churches, community organizations, etc.) are supplementing children’s education with a wide variety of programs. and offerings. Some are reminiscent of the “joku” – crowded schools – of Japan. Many are non-profit, but some of the largest are owned by commercial companies.

9. “Proprietary” schools. Today, we see the emergence of entire chains of for-profit schools, with corporate shareholders and managers.

10. Design-Based Schools: Alternatives are emerging to the familiar 19th century school model. Bridging the gap between an R&D project and a systemic reform, unique designs for innovative schools have now been created and marketed.

11. Virtual schools. Through the Internet and e-mail they can interact with their teachers (and with lesson plans, homework, etc.) without leaving the house. In the old days, families who lived in the mountains or were sent to distant lands could obtain mail-order curricula for their children. Today, technology enables 24-hour “classrooms” and online access to teachers.

12. Privately managed public schools: Close to a dozen companies operate in the “school management” business in the United States, and undertake – through a charter or management contracts with the district – to manage public schools and make a profit along the way. Although it remains to be seen whether investor profits will follow, it is clear that public education in the United States is becoming available for “outsourcing.”

It is no longer strange to send your child to a school of your choice rather than a school assigned by the superintendent’s office. Many bypass political disputes because they arise from the state or district deciding on its own that it cannot serve certain children in its public schools — but must see that they are educated. This practice is well established in the world of “special education,” where young people with severe or esoteric disabilities (or litigious 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 arrangements.

Districts also employ private providers for special education services such as the supplemental instruction for disadvantaged youth provided under the federal Title I program. Although many districts have long outsourced busing, building maintenance, and cafeterias (and buy everything from drawers to computers from private vendors), what is new is allowing companies Privacy to provide actual instruction – and run entire schools.

The political heat and noise levels begin to rise as we transition from a state-chosen private school to a parent-chosen type. However, a number of jurisdictions routinely subsidize the peripheral costs of private education. Instead of directly funding private schools, some jurisdictions deploy their tax codes to help parents with tuition, fees and other expenses. In some famous—and controversial—cases, the state or county actually pays tuition at a private school.

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