There is mounting evidence that more families would choose different schools if they could. This is clear from survey and focus group data, alternative and charter school waiting lists, among many examples. What prevents them from setting sail for a new educational island is, above all, the political blockade that still closes the ports to all but a few lucky or intrepid travellers. Although the new islands and education ships may be visible to avid policy explorers, most people still reside on the two old continents, and don’t travel much. The reasons are familiar, beginning with old-fashioned complacency about one’s own school. Surveys have long shown a relatively high level of satisfaction, or resignation, among Americans with children in school. The familiar and close is often more comfortable than the distant and strange.
Many are deeply entrenched in the status quo: teachers’ unions, textbook publishers, school board associations, colleges of education, and administrator groups, to name just a few elements of what is widely called the school “establishment.” public. Though slowly giving in to some contemporary reforms (for example, state academic standards), that establishment attacks every change that might undermine its near-monopoly of the means of production. The pride of their tactics is proportional to how threatening a proposed change seems. Thus, it has a higher tolerance for (and ability to co-opt) magnet schools and other forms of “open enrollment” among the institutions it still controls than it does for truly independent charter or voucher schools. That’s why, for example, virtually all state charter school laws include a hard “cap” on the number of such schools and why any proposal to loosen the cap meets with strong opposition in the state chamber.
Less conspicuous but still significant is the change-averse and self-serving private school establishment, which enjoys a comfortable niche, is anything but entrepreneurial, happily enrolls around ten percent of the student population, and has reason to be concerned about the new forms of education. competition such as homeschooling and charter schools. Several private school leaders are also wary of publicly funded vouchers, fearing government regulation and the loss of independence that such a funding mechanism can bring. And a handful of vocal libertarians and “school state” breakaways would have all levels of government withdraw from primary/secondary education altogether, leaving it up to parents to buy it out of pocket if they want it for their daughters and sons.
While that notion hasn’t caught on, it’s clear that establishing public schools is no longer the only source of resistance to new political strategies to expand school choice at taxpayer expense. Still, it remains the biggest and most powerful source of opposition and the main reason why not everyone who wants to explore the new educational islands can access them.
Despite uncertainties and opposition, the movement is palpable. More islands spring up and more people find ways to get to them. The blockade has more loopholes. Educational ventures that five years ago were the subject of academic disputes are happening today. The question about the coupons is simply where will they appear next. Politically, tempting changes are also visible. Teachers’ union leaders now claim to favor charter schools and close or “reconstitute” unsuccessful public schools. Union-sensitive politicians now claim that they favor virtually all forms of school choice, except public funding of fully private schools.
In fact, the map of education is changing and it seems certain that it will change more in the coming years. Like almost any other major industry, K-12 education will grow more diversified and specialized. Monopolies will seem more anomalous and unacceptable. Just as our television options have expanded from three networks to hundreds of cable and satellite channels, so is the range of schools.
It is especially interesting to see how the new islands and migration patterns affect the two old educational continents. Although the evidence to date is anecdotal, one can detect clues that the market works in K-12 education as well. When the monopoly collapses and people change schools, abandoned institutions change their forms in an attempt to win back clients over whom they no longer have bureaucratic hegemony.
Small town school systems respond to competition from charter schools by mimicking their curricula. It is not a flood, but it is more than a trickle, and it may become the most important effect of the new schools and choice mechanisms. The ultimate goal of the islands may not be that they are inundated with millions of migrants. The point, rather, may simply be that once it is clear that people can no longer be confined against their will on the two old continents, those who want them to stay home must make their home more attractive. However, for such a long-term reform strategy to be successful, the alternatives must be genuinely viable and accessible in the short term to many children and families. Which, of course, is precisely what the proponents of the old fixes are doing their best to avoid.