Choice Reigns Outside the Public Sphere


The greatest change for K-12 education in the coming quarter century will be a shift in emphasis from schooling to learning.

Schooling--being present in a building for seven hours a day for 180 days with children of the same age--will give way to learning--the demonstration of mastery of specific objectives. Education will remain of paramount interest to our society, but there will be a wider definition of how that education can be achieved. Setting the stage for these changes are three significant developments at the close of the 20th century--charter schools, vouchers and home schooling.

  • Charter schools. Since Minnesota passed the first charter law in 1991, charter schools have become an important element of public school reform. Strong charter laws, which are found in the District of Columbia and about one-half of the 36 states with charter school legislation, allow schools to offer a differentiated education product to parents and students on a voluntary basis.

    More states will pass charter legislation and weaker laws will be strengthened in coming years. Legislators see charter schools as way of encouraging competition, widening academic offerings and improving customer satisfaction. In essence, charter schools are one way to satisfy a demand for choice among consumers.

    No student is zoned or mandated to attend a charter school. Yet for those who elect to attend a charter school, the government pays the fee. In truth, charter schools are voucher schools. The only difference is that the money goes from the government to the charter school group and does not pass through parents’ hands.

  • Vouchers. Charter schools are the precursor of vouchers, and vouchers will take a course similar to charter laws’ political evolution. Torrid debate will take place in state after state with a wide range of voucher laws passed in the next decade.

    Initially aimed at the disadvantaged, voucher programs eventually will incorporate middle- and upper-income families. A marketplace of education providers will offer services and products to millions of voucher-holding students. Among those providers will be public schools, charter schools, religious schools (the separation issue will give way to the issue of choice), for-profit schools, tutoring centers and on-line schools. Traditional public schools will lose market share to a wider variety of competitors at a rate of about 1 percent annually. While public schools hold 89 percent of today’s market, their share in 2025 will range between 65 and 70 percent.

  • Home schooling. Over the past 20 years, home-school advocates have established, or re-established, the primacy of the parents’ role in educating their children over the state’s role. Once the domain of religious fundamentalists, home schooling is becoming a mainstream option, with Catholic families making up the fastest-growing group.

    Some 1.5 million children now are schooled at home. While that number is slightly more than 3 percent of the 47 million children enrolled today in public schools, it represents more than 20 percent of non-public school enrollment. As technology increases the options and range of curriculum for home schoolers, their numbers will continue to grow well into the 21st century.

    Home schoolers are at the forefront of the buyers’ market that increasingly will characterize K-12 education over the next 25 years. Parents will look to the marketplace to purchase the educational products and services that meet the needs of their children.

  • Structural issues. The three areas noted above are substantial platforms that provide the legal and statutory basis for a shift to greater market forces in education. As this shift occurs, the structure of schooling--the curriculum, assessment practices and scheduling--will change as will the accreditation standards for schools.

    A combination of consumer needs and technological capabilities will move schools away from a mass production model toward a model of mass customization. Longer school days and school years might be an option for some, while shorter days and year-round schooling will appeal to others. Where one family might desire an Afrocentric curriculum while another family prefers a core knowledge approach, both needs can be met in a mass customized model. Schools will become very customer-oriented.

    The current move to standards will continue to evolve until there are established and agreed-upon objectives and assessment techniques in all areas. These standards will form the common body of knowledge that will determine when a student has achieved certain educational benchmarks. In the next quarter-century, learning and a demonstration of mastery will become the primary objectives. The methods, schedule and location of learning will become subordinate to these ends.

    The stage has been set. While there will be no Berlin Wall-type of event signifying the end of one era and the beginning of the next, there will continue to be a shift to greater market forces and choice for families in the education of their children. The education of the public will remain a crucial priority for our national, state and local communities, but educating the public will no longer be synonymous with public education. Families will have a far wider range of education options from which to choose.

    John McLaughlin is president of The Education Industry Group, 122 S. Phillips Ave., Suite 200, Sioux Falls, SD. 57104. E-mail: john@edindustry.com