More families would choose 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 and focus group data, from alternative and charter school waiting lists, among many examples. What prevents them from setting sail for a new educational island is, above all, the political blockade that still closes the ports to all but a few lucky or intrepid travelers. Even though the new islands and ships of education may be visible to avid policy explorers, most people still reside on the two old continents, and don’t travel much. The reasons are familiar, starting with the old-fashioned complacency about the school itself. Polls have long shown a relatively high level of satisfaction, or resignation, among Americans with children in school. What is familiar and close is usually more comfortable than what is distant and strange.

Many are deeply entrenched in the status quo: teachers’ unions, textbook publishers, school board associations, colleges of education, and administrators’ groups, to name just a few elements of what is widely referred to as the school “establishment.” public. Though slowly yielding to some contemporary reforms (for example, state academic standards), that establishment attacks every change that could undermine its near-monopoly of the means of production. Pride in your tactics is proportional to how threatening a proposed change appears. Thus, it has greater tolerance (and cooptability) for magnet schools and other forms of “open enrollment” among the institutions it still controls than it does for truly independent charter or voucher schools. That’s why, for example, virtually all state charter school laws include a hard “cap” on the number of such schools and why any proposal to loosen the cap meets with strong opposition in the state house.

Less conspicuous but equally significant is the change-averse and egotistical private school establishment, which enjoys a comfortable niche, is anything but entrepreneurial, happily enrolls around ten percent of the student population, and has reason to be concerned about the new forms of education. competition like homeschooling and charter schools. Several private school leaders are also wary of publicly funded vouchers, fearing government regulation and the loss of independence such a funding mechanism can bring. And a handful of vocal libertarians and “school state” separatists would get all levels of government to withdraw from elementary/secondary education altogether, leaving it up to parents to buy out of pocket if they want it for their sons and daughters.

Although that notion has not spread widely, it is clear that the establishment of public schools is no longer the only source of resistance to new political strategies to expand school choice at taxpayer expense. Still, it remains the biggest and most potent source of opposition and the main reason why not everyone who wants to explore the new educational islands can access it.

Despite the uncertainties and the opposition, the movement is palpable. More islands are springing up and more people are finding ways to get to them. The blockade has more loopholes. The educational undertakings that five years ago were the subject of academic disputes are occurring today. The question about coupons is simply where they will appear next. Politically, tempting changes are also visible. Teacher union leaders now claim to favor charter schools and close or “reconstitute” unsuccessful public schools. Union-sensitive politicians now say they favor virtually all forms of school choice except public funding of fully private schools.

In fact, the map of education is changing and it seems certain that it will change more in the coming years. Like almost any other major industry, K-12 education will grow more diversified and specialized. Monopolies will seem more abnormal and unacceptable. Just as our television choices have expanded from three networks to hundreds of cable and satellite channels, so is the range of schools.

It is especially interesting to observe how the new islands and migration patterns affect the two former educational continents. Although the evidence to date is anecdotal, one can spot clues that the market works in K-12 education as well. When the monopoly collapses and people switch schools, abandoned institutions change their ways in an attempt to win back clients over whom they no longer have bureaucratic hegemony.

Small town school systems respond to competition from charter schools by imitating their curricula. It’s not a flood, but it’s more than a trickle, and it may become the most important effect of new schools and election mechanisms. The ultimate goal for the islands may not be that they are inundated with millions of migrants. The point, rather, may simply be that once it is clear that people can no longer be confined against their will on the two old continents, those who want them to stay home need to make their home more attractive. However, for such a long-term reform strategy to be successful, the alternatives must be genuinely viable and accessible in the short term for many children and families. Which, of course, is precisely what the defenders of the old fix are doing everything they can to avoid.

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