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
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
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
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
much regulation but accountable for results. Charters may hire
teachers without traditional credentials, set a longer school day
year, and choose a curriculum. More than 1,100 are currently
*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
*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
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
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. …