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A Preview of the Future of Schools in the U.S.

If corporate reformers have their way, all schools in this country will eventually be privatized. The rationale is that competition best serves students. It's a specious argument, but it has great appeal to taxpayers who are frustrated and angry in the face of disappointing results posted by too many public schools.

Yet until now, little has been written about the details of the future educational landscape. So maybe it's time to take a closer look. New York City, home of the nation's largest school district, provides a preview that we ignore at our peril. Parents who are disaffected for one reason or another with neighborhood public schools and whose children do not win admission through a lottery to coveted public schools are increasingly looking to private schools. (Religious schools are an option, but they remain a distant second.)

According to The New York Times, however, the vaunted strategy of competition for admission to private schools from P-12 is anything but equitable ("In Private School Admissions, a Firm Creates Fans and Skeptics," Apr. 18). In fact, gaming the system has become de rigeur.

That's not at all surprising. It's unrealistic to assume that quality can be cloned on a scale large enough to meet the demands of parents. As a result, more than 200 admission consultants have emerged to help desperate parents get a leg up at fees ranging from $150 to $500 an hour. For affluent parents, the fees are easily manageable. But what about other parents who want to enroll their children in the same storied schools?

That's the problem in a nutshell when an educational marketplace is allowed to operate unfettered. Supporters will be quick to respond that the disconnect between supply and demand can be addressed. They say that new schools will be created, which will eliminate the need for such consultants. All parents will then have an equal opportunity to choose from a full menu.

But opening new schools, either by converting existing buildings or constructing new ones, is expensive. This is particularly the case in large cities, where the cost of real estate is prohibitive. Moreover, there are no economies of scale in education. Education is extremely labor intensive. As a result, no matter how often the process of opening new schools is repeated, there are little savings to be gained.

The truth is that parents with means will always have an advantage in gaining admission for their children. We've seen this at the college level in the form of preferences for admitting development cases and legacies. Why would the situation be any different in P-12?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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