The growing awareness that the current K-12 education system in the United States is producing deplorable results and that incremental strategies to reform it (smaller classes, additional graduation requirements, etc.) have not made much difference. Daring alternatives—including some that upend the axioms and power relations of yesteryear—can be considered now. Broadening the recognition that “one size fits all” education does not work well in our pluralistic democracy. As people demanded additional options, new types of schools emerged along with new ways of enabling families to choose from. Not only are some of these new schools better suited to America’s diverse educational needs, but the parent’s choice market is also helping to hold them accountable for student achievement. Such reasoning is, of course, familiar from the old voucher debate, but it is no longer just the stuff of debate.
People who want to leave the crumbling, overcrowded continent of public schools to improve their lives and the prospects of the children on the new islands are less than willing to tell them they should stay where they are. Polls show increasing support for school choice. More Americans now prefer allowing parents to send their school-age children to any public, private, or church-related school they choose at government expense, rather than opposing them. As many as three-fifths of public school parents say they would change their child’s school if they could afford it. With about 56 million young adults currently enrolled in US public schools, this means that 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 “reconstitution of government”. It includes outsourcing, decentralization, new incentives and accountability arrangements. In both sectors, the goal is to achieve better results (satisfied customers, greater output, higher achievement, etc.) with less wasted resources. Although this organizational revolution is slowly infiltrating K-12 education, it is clear that it is 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 money – to take advantage of new educational opportunities for their children. According to our statistics, the map of education today contains – in addition to the traditional public and private institutions – dozens of other forms of schools and education.
1. Magnet Schools. These are usually district-level, specialized schools that are intentionally created with particular subjects or emphases: music and art, science and technology, Hispanic cultures, and so on. The goal of the first magnets was to integrate schools by drawing young people to remote classrooms without the need for compulsory transportation. But magnets now serve multiple purposes. In fact, some communities have converted all of their schools to magnet schools, thus supporting comprehensive public school choice programs.
2. Alternative Schools: Developed mainly for hard-to-teach young people who misbehave, these are not schools chosen by parents as schools chosen by the district for problem children in “normal” classrooms. They are often secondary schools with low pupil-teacher ratios, modified curricula and flexible schedules.
3. Charter Schools: From back-to-basics to Montessori methods to schools for disabled children, with hundreds of other models in between, charter schools are a great mix: public schools with some of the features of private schools. As public institutions, they are open to all who wish to attend, paid for by taxes, and accountable to public authorities for their performance (especially student achievement) and decent conduct (eg non-discrimination). Today, charters are on the brink between being a fringe option for relatively few disaffected families and becoming a major source of educational alternatives for millions of children.
4. Homeschooling. Historically, home schoolers have been religious families dissatisfied with the public school curriculum and uncomfortable with (or unable to afford) private schools. Recently, more parents are citing reasons such as mediocrity in the public school system. An intriguing variable that includes young people who attend school part-time and are home-schooled part-time.
5. Schools within schools: There is no reason why a single school building should contain only one educational programme. Having more than one program installed in the same building makes it easy to offer educational alternatives without worrying about bricks and mortar. It also reduces risks; If the new program is not successful, students can be re-accommodated into regular classes.
6. Small schools. Schools that enjoy some of the freedoms offered by charter schools but also have distinct curricular themes and an intimate scope that is completely absent from the city’s regular public high schools.
7. Preparatory technical schools. This concept is particularly suitable for young people who are more interested in careers than academics.
8. After-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 of them are similar to the “goku” – cram schools – in Japan. Many are not-for-profit, but some of the fastest growing are owned by commercial companies.
9. “Royal” schools. Today, we are witnessing the rise of whole chains of for-profit schools, complete with shareholders and corporate directors.
10. Design-Based Schools: Alternatives to the familiar school model emerged in the nineteenth century. Bridging the gap between research and development project and methodological reform has resulted in the creation and now commercialization of innovative school distinctive designs.
11. Virtual schools. With the Internet and email, they can interact with their teachers (and with lesson plans, homework assignments, etc.) without leaving home. In the old days, families who lived in the mountains or were in faraway lands could get mail order curricula for their children. Today, technology enables “classrooms” that are open 24 hours a day and online access to teachers.
12. Privately Operated Public Schools: Approximately a dozen companies are in the “school management” business in the United States, undertaking – through charter or management contracts with the district – to run public schools and make a profit along the way. Although it remains to be seen if investor profits will follow, it is clear that public education in the US is becoming amenable to “outsourcing”.
It is no longer strange to send your child to the school of your choice instead of the school assigned by the superintendent’s office. Many avoid political controversy because they result from a state or district itself deciding that it cannot serve certain children in its public schools—but must make sure they get an education. This practice is well established in the realm of “special education,” where children with severe or esoteric disabilities (or conflicted parents) can invoke federal, state, and district policies to gain access to special schools at public expense. But disability is no longer the only reason for such arrangements.
Districts also engage private providers of specialized educational services such as supplemental instruction for disadvantaged youth provided under the federal Title I program. While many districts have long outsourced bus transportation, building maintenance, and cafeteria operations (and buying everything from chalk to computers from private vendors), what’s new is that private companies are allowed to provide actual instruction—and run entire schools.
Political heat and noise levels begin to rise as we shift from private education chosen by the state to one chosen by parents. However, a number of jurisdictions routinely subsidize the secondary costs of private education. Rather than directly funding private schools, some jurisdictions publish their tax laws to help parents with tuition, fees, and other out-of-pocket expenses. In several famous and controversial cases, the state or province actually pays private school tuition.