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Public Schools of the Future

I've written before that I don't believe public schools will be recognizable two decades from now.  Apparently, Margaret Spellings, former secretary of education, agrees ("Get Ready for An á la Carte Education," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 8). Of course, no one can predict the future with certainty, but if I'm reading the signs correctly, public education will become a consumer product, with many of the features associated with it.

The question is why.  Is the present system so terrible? There are powerful interests who have managed to convince taxpayers that this is the case.  They cite only the failures - but never the successes - of public schools. There's no doubt about the former or about the latter. However, the media rarely headline schools that excel. The only exception is charter schools, which have become the darlings of reformers ("$250,000 Broad Prize for charter schools goes to KIPP Foundation," Los Angeles Times, Jul. 8).  I salute those charter schools that have managed to provide a solid education to students who were failing in traditional public schools. But charter schools play by a completely different set of rules, and even though they do, they don't always succeed.

Nevertheless, change is needed.  Fifteen years ago, Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, made a provocative case that high school, as we know it, is obsolete ("Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood," The New York Times, May 17, 1999). He correctly understood that young people are exposed to images and ideas that were not available to their counterparts decades before. He emphasized that today's generation matures much earlier than they did when the high school was invented. As a result, he concluded that high school is not worth reforming. I wouldn't go that far. But there is pressure building to overhaul high school and the lower grades to give parents more choice in deciding which school their children will attend. Charter schools are the most conspicuous evidence, but so are efforts to provide parents with vouchers or their variants.  

Although vouchers have been voted down in every referendum to date, their supporters have come up with an end run in the form of private school scholarships.  For example, in 2008 Georgia established a private school scholarship program that provided donors with dollar-for-dollar tax credits up to $2,500 a couple. Because the donations are collected and distributed by non-profit scholarship groups, they are immune from challenges to church-state separation.

The entire campaign to make schools a consumer product was made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. By a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled that vouchers do not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment as long as five criteria are met.  The single most important is that vouchers are given directly to parents - not to schools.  In other words, parents are consumers who decide where to spend their money on educating their children. With this model, it's inevitable that teaching will become a service industry. Teachers will sell their services to the highest bidder.  Teachers' unions will become little more than advisory bodies, without any real power.  

It's not a pretty picture, no matter how it is being packaged.  But apparently, it has great appeal. The most recent evidence is the ruling in Vergara v. California. I expect to see similar decisions in the near future ("The Legal Road Map to Better Public Schools," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 9).  It's all part of the drive to operate schools like a business.  In the end, I don't believe the U.S. will be better off.  

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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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