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More Families Would Opt For Different Schools If They Could
There is growing evidence that more families would opt for different schools if they could. This is clear from survey data and focus groups, from alternative school and charter school waiting lists, among many examples. What prevents them from sailing to a new island of education is, above all, the political block that still closes the gates to all but a few lucky or intrepid travelers. Visible though the new islands and ships of education may be for the avid explorers of politics, most people still reside in the two old continents – and they don’t travel much. The reasons are familiar, starting with the ancient complacency of his school. Surveys have long shown a relatively high level of contentment — or resignation — among Americans with children in school. The familiar and close are often more comfortable than the distant and strange.
Many vested interests are deeply invested in the status quo: teachers’ unions, textbook publishers, school board associations, colleges of education, and administrator groups, to name just a few. of elements of what is broadly called the public school “establishment.” Although it is slowly yielding to some contemporary reforms (for example, academic standards in the state), that establishment attacks any change that could undermine its near-monopoly of the means of production. The ferocity of their tactics is proportional to how threatening a proposed change appears. Thus it has greater tolerance for (and ability to co-opt) magnet schools and other forms of “open enrollment” among the institutions it still controls than for truly independent charter or voucher schools. This is why, for example, practically every state charter law includes a strict “cap” on the number of such schools and why any proposal to remove the cap meets strong opposition in the state.
Less noted, but still significant is the private establishment of the private school, which enjoys a cozy niche, is nothing entrepreneurial, is happy to enroll about ten percent of the student population, and has reason to be apprehensive about and new forms of competition such as home schooling and charter schools. A number of private school leaders are also wary of publicly funded vouchers, fearing government regulation and the loss of independence that such a funding mechanism is likely to bring. And a handful of vocal libertarians and “school” separationists would have all levels of government withdraw entirely from elementary/secondary education, leaving it entirely up to parents to buy out of pocket if they want for their daughters and sons.
Although it does not spread far, it is clear that the public school institution is no longer the only source of resistance to new political strategies to expand school choice at the expense of taxpayers. However, it remains the biggest and most powerful source of opposition and the main reason that not everyone who wants to discover the new educational islands can access them.
Despite the uncertainties and opposition, the movement is palpable. More islands are born and more people find ways to get there. The block has more gaps. Educational enterprises that five years ago were the subject of academic dispute are happening today. The question about the vouchers is just where they will be next. Politically, too, tentative changes are visible. Teachers’ union leaders now say they favor charter schools — and closing, or “rebuilding,” unsuccessful public schools. Union-sensitive politicians now claim to favor virtually any form of school choice without public funding of fully private schools.
The map of education is indeed changing, and it seems sure to change more in the years ahead. Like almost every other major industry, K-12 education will grow more diversified and specialized. Monopolies will seem more abnormal – and unacceptable. As our television options expand from three networks to hundreds of cable and satellite channels, the range of schools expands.
It is especially interesting to look at the new islands and the migration patterns affecting the two old educational continents. Although the evidence to date is anecdotal, we can see signs that the market also works in the K-12 school. When the monopoly crumbles and people change schools, abandoned institutions change their ways in an attempt to win back customers over whom they no longer have bureaucratic hegemony.
Small-town school systems are responding to competition from charter schools by imitating their curricula. It is not a flood, but it is more than a trickle – and it can be the most important effect of the new schools and mechanisms of choice. The eventual point of the islands cannot be that they are flooded with millions of migrants. The point, rather, can be simply that once it is clear that people can no longer be confined against their will in the two old continents, those who want them to stay at home must make the home more attractive. For the long-term reform strategy to succeed, however, the alternatives must be truly viable and accessible in the short term for many children and families. Which, of course, is precisely what the defenders of the old arrangements are doing their utmost to prevent.
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