There is growing evidence that more families would opt for different schools if they could. This is clear from survey data and focus groups, from alternative-school and charter-school waiting lists, among many examples. What prevents them from sailing to a new education island is, above all, the political blockade that still seals the ports to all but a few lucky or intrepid voyagers. Visible though the new education islands and vessels may be 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 contentment – or resignation – among Americans with children in school. The familiar and nearby are often more comfortable than the distant and strange.
Many interests are deeply vested in the status quo: teacher unions, textbook publishers, school board associations, colleges of education and administrator groups, to name just a few elements of what is widely termed the public-school “establishment”. Though yielding slowly to some contemporary reforms (e.g. statewide academic standards), that establishment attacks every change that might undermine its near-monopoly of the means of production. The fierceness of its tactics is proportionate to how threatening a proposed change appears. Thus it has greater tolerance for (and ability to co-opt) magnet schools and other forms of “open enrollment” among institutions it still controls than for truly independent charter schools or vouchers. That is why, for example, virtually every state charter law includes a tight “cap” on the number of such schools and why any proposal to loosen the cap meets forceful opposition at the statehouse.
Less noted but also significant is the change-averse and self-interested private-school establishment, which enjoys a cozy niche, is anything but entrepreneurial, happily enrolls about ten percent of the student population, and has reason to be apprehensive about new forms of competition such as home schooling and charter schools. A number of private-school leaders are also wary of publicly funded vouchers, fearing the government regulation and loss of independence that such a funding mechanism is apt to bring. And a handful of vocal libertarians and “school-state” separationists would have all levels of government withdraw entirely from elementary/secondary education, leaving it entirely to parents to purchase out-of-pocket if they want it for their daughters and sons.
Though that notion has not spread far, it’s clear that the public school establishment is no longer the only source of resistance to novel policy strategies for widening school choice at taxpayer expense. Still, it remains the greatest and most potent source of opposition and the principal reason that not everyone who would like to explore the new education islands can gain access to them.
Despite the uncertainties and opposition, movement is palpable. More islands arise and more people find ways of reaching them. The blockade has more gaps. Education ventures that five years ago were the stuff of academic disputation are happening today. The question about vouchers is simply where they’ll turn up next. Politically, too, tantalizing changes are visible. Teacher-union heads now claim to favor charter schools – and shutting down, or “reconstituting”, unsuccessful public schools. Union-sensitive politicians now claim to favor practically every form of school choice short of public funding of wholly private schools.
The education map is indeed changing, and seems certain to change more in years ahead. Like almost every other major industry, K-12 education will grow more diversified and specialized. Monopolies will appear more anomalous – and unacceptable. Just as our television options have widened from three networks to hundreds of cable and satellite channels so is the range of schools widening.
It’s especially interesting to watch the new islands and migration patterns affect the two old education continents. Though the evidence to date is anecdotal, one can spot clues that the marketplace actually works in K-12 schooling, too. When the monopoly crumbles and people change schools, the forsaken institutions alter their ways in an attempt to retrieve the customers over whom they no longer have bureaucratic hegemony.
Small-town school systems respond to competition from charter schools by mimicking their curricula. It’s no flood, but it’s more than a trickle – and may turn out to be the most important effect of the new schools and choice mechanisms. The eventual point of the islands may not be that they are inundated with millions of migrants. The point, rather, may simply be that once it’s 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 home more appealing. For that long-term reform strategy to succeed, however, the alternatives must be genuinely viable and accessible in the short run for lots of children and families. Which, of course, is precisely what the defenders of the old arrangements are doing their utmost to prevent.