Public Schools Enter a New World of Competition Eroding Monopoly Series: Reinventing Our Public Schools : Publuic Schools in the Marketplace

Article excerpt

For the first time this century, US public schools are looking over their shoulders, as new competitors gear up to offer choices that families have never had before.

For traditional public schools, the message is: Improve or watch the system dissolve into a thousand points of schooling - religious schools, private secular schools, publicly supported charter schools, home schools, or virtual schools on a screen.

Public schools are taking on more kids with a wider range of abilities, languages, and family situations than ever. In the 1970s, when courts ordered busing for racial balance, they bused. When Washington churned out more regulations, they hired staff to fill out the forms. When the experts said to knock down the classroom walls or throw away the phonics books, many did, only to reverse the order when the students stopped learning. Through it all, public schools began to lose their most-valuable asset: confidence of the American people. The opening decades of the next century will be about how to get it back. Employers and colleges say that high school graduates can't read or write, or understand math well enough to start a job or take courses. Less than 4 in 10 Americans say they still have confidence in public schools, especially urban ones. Only 1 in 5 public- school teachers say they feel well qualified to teach in a modern classroom, according to a 1998 survey by the US Department of Education. Most parents, black and white, say that black kids are in bad schools and that more money won't fix the problem. As a result, many people are rethinking the whole enterprise. Public schools no longer hold a monopoly, even for poor parents. Failing schools risk being taken over by the state, and all schools face new competition for students, teachers, and funds. More states and school districts are contracting with private providers. While changes are still nascent, they promise to shape a future that looks quite different from today. *Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have passed charter-school laws to create a new kind of public school - free from much regulation but accountable for results. Charters may hire teachers without traditional credentials, set a longer school day and year, and choose a curriculum. More than 1,100 are currently operating. *The first nationwide private K-12 scholarship fund is offering vouchers to help poor kids exit failing schools. The New York-based Children's Scholarship Fund will give away 40,000 scholarships in an April 22 lottery. Awards will partially cover private-school tuition costs. *As many as 1.2 million children are being schooled at home. Once stoutly resisted by public authorities, home schooling is now legal in all states. More than 1 in 3 Americans say that they support the option, and a cottage industry of private companies is growing up to service it. Some on the frontier of the new educational marketplace, like Children's Scholarship Fund co-founder Theodore Forstmann, say that they wouldn't mind seeing the public-school system disappear altogether. "I just want to see better choices for poor kids," he says. Others see competition as the salvation of a system that spends $350 billion a year, but has not been able to budge overall achievement much beyond stagnation or to keep up internationally. Public education has seen reform waves before. Nineteenth-century reformers created public schools as a way to make good citizens out of waves of new immigrants. At the turn of the 20th century, Progressive Era reformers and business allies created professional associations and an ethos of the expert. Courts and social movements in the 1960s and '70s added demands for desegregation, bilingual education, multiculturalism, and programs for gifted children and those with disabilities. What distinguishes the wave that is sweeping into the 21st century is the language of the market that infuses it: Parents and students are "consumers. …