Growing awareness that the current U.S. K-12 education system is producing woeful results and that incrementalist strategies for reforming it (smaller classes, added graduation requirements, etc.) haven’t made much difference. Bolder alternatives – including some that overturn yesterday’s axioms and power relationships – are now thinkable. Widening recognition that “one size fits all” education does not work very well in our pluralistic democracy. As people have demanded additional options, new types of schools have come into existence along with new ways of enabling families to choose among them. Not only do some of those novel schools better suit America’s varied educational needs, but the marketplace of parental choice also helps to hold them accountable for student achievement. Such reasoning, of course, is familiar from the old voucher debate, but it’s no longer just the stuff of argument.
People who want to leave the decaying and crowded public-school continent to better their lives and children’s prospects on 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 any public, private, or church-related 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 to. With some 56 million youngsters currently enrolled in U.S. public schools, that means tens of millions of families are potential candidates for choice programs.
Seismic shifts 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”. It includes outsourcing, decentralizing and new incentives and accountability arrangements. In both sectors, the goal is to achieve better outcomes (satisfied customers, greater output, higher achievement, etc.) with fewer wasted resources. Though this organizational revolution is only slowly penetrating K-12 education, it is clearly starting to do so. These developments create a healthy environment for different kinds of schools to arise and for people to demand the freedom – and wherewithal – to avail themselves 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 other forms of schools and schooling.
1. Magnet schools. Usually district-based, these are purposefully created specialty schools with particular themes or emphases: music and art, science and technology, Hispanic cultures, etc. The first magnets were mainly intended to integrate schools by attracting youngsters to distant classrooms without compulsory busing. But magnets now serve multiple purposes. Indeed, a few communities have turned all their schools into magnet schools, thus backing into comprehensive public-school choice programs.
2. Alternative schools: Developed primarily for hard-to-educate and misbehaving youngsters, these are not so much schools that parents select as schools that the district chooses for children who are problems in “regular” classrooms. Most often they are secondary schools with low pupil-teacher ratios, modified curricula and flexible schedules.
3. Charter schools: Ranging from back-to-basics to Montessori methods to schools for disabled kids, with a hundred other models in between, charter schools are a fascinating hybrid: public schools with some features of private schools. As public institutions, they’re open to all who wish to attend, paid for with tax dollars, and accountable to public authorities for their performance (especially student achievement) and decent behavior (e.g. non-discrimination). Today, charters are on the borderline between being a marginal option for a relative handful of disgruntled families and turning into a major source of educational alternatives for millions of kids.
4. Home schooling. Historically, home-schoolers were religious families dissatisfied with the public-school curriculum and not comfortable with (or unable to afford) private schools. Lately, more parents cite reasons such as mediocrity in the public-school system. An intriguing variant involves youngsters who attend school part-time and are taught at home part-time.
5. Schools-within-schools: There is no reason why a single school building must contain only one education program. Fitting more than one program into the same building makes it easier to offer instructional alternatives without worrying about bricks and mortar. It also cuts the risk; if the new program doesn’t work, students can be re-absorbed into regular classrooms.
6. Mini-schools. Schools with some of the freedoms of charter schools but also with distinctive curricular themes and the intimate scale so acutely absent from the City’s regular public high schools.
7. Tech-prep schools. The concept is especially well-suited to young people more interested in jobs than academics.
8. After-school 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 schooling with a wide array of programs and offerings. Some resemble the “juku” – cram schools – of Japan. Many are non-profit, but some of the fastest-growing are owned by commercial firms.
9. “Proprietary” schools. Today, we are seeing the emergence of whole chains of for-profit schools, complete with shareholders and corporate managers.
10. Design-based schools: Alternatives are popping up to the familiar 19th Century school model. Bridging the gap between an R & D project and systemic reform have created and are now marketing distinctive designs for innovative schools.
11. Virtual schools. Using the Internet and e-mail, they can interact with their teachers (and with lesson plans, homework assignments, etc.) without leaving home. In the old days, families living in the mountains or posted to distant lands could obtain mail-order curricula for their children. Today, technology makes possible “classrooms” that are open 24 hours a day and online access to teachers.
12. Privately managed public schools: Close to a dozen firms are in the “school-management” business in the United States, undertaking – via charter or management contracts with the district – to run public schools and make a profit along the way. Though it remains to be seen whether investor profits will follow, it’s apparent that public education in the United States is becoming amenable to “outsourcing”.
It’s no longer odd to send your child to a school you chose rather than one that the superintendent’s office assigned him to. Many sidestep political controversy because they result from the state or district deciding for itself that it cannot serve certain children in its public schools – but must see that they obtain an education. This practice is well-established in the world of “special education”, where youngsters 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 grounds for such arrangements.
Districts also engage private providers for specialized educational services such as the supplementary instruction for disadvantaged youngsters provided under the federal Title I program. Although many districts have long outsourced bus transportation, building maintenance and cafeteria operations (and buy everything from chalk to computers from private vendors), what’s new is allowing private firms to provide actual instruction – and to operate entire schools.
The political heat and noise levels begin to rise as we turn from state-selected private schooling to the parent-chosen kind. Yet a number of jurisdictions routinely subsidize the peripheral costs of private schooling. Rather than funding private schools directly, some jurisdictions deploy their tax codes to help parents with tuition, fees and other out-of-pocket expenses. In several celebrated – and controversial – instances, the state or district actually pays private-school tuition.