The child, not the school
A growing number of lawmakers across the country are taking steps to redefine public education, shifting the debate from the classroom to the pocketbook. Instead of simply financing a traditional system of neighborhood schools, legislators and some governors are headed toward funneling public money directly to families, who would be free to choose the kind of schooling they believe is best for their children, be it public, charter, private, religious, online or at home.
In particular, the Times is right that what is sought here is redefinition. Once states established and supported institutions – public schools – that parents could take or leave, so long as they educated their children somehow. The new paradigm has states instead provide a quantum of funding earmarked for each child, that parents can deploy at any educational institution of their choosing. The fact that the aid attaches to the child and follows her to her family’s chosen school is much more important than the various labels ascribed to the funding and/or the institutional provider – public, private, charter, voucher.
As people learn to function within, and get used to, this new paradigm, they will stop thinking of educational politics as the way to create good public schools, and start thinking of it in terms of how big the aid pie is and how it gets divided up. Whether a school is public or private, online or bricks-and-mortar, religious or not – these stop being political questions and start being questions that markets will resolve through supply and demand.
Advocates for traditional public schools are fighting this shift hard. They have won some tactical battles. For instance, they have convinced charter school advocates to adopt a self-understanding of their schools as public schools rather than private ones, notwithstanding that the charter idea and the voucher idea are at root very similar: schools started by private parties, subject to (relatively) minimal regulations, and dependent for survival on public monies that they receive if and only to the extent that they can convince parents to elect to enroll their children. But such concessions will not, and need not, last. Once parents understand that they, and not any given school system, are the recipients of aid, whether a school is publicly or privately run becomes just one more element in the vector of characteristics that schools competing in the marketplace present to consumers for their consideration.
Particularly interesting is the Times’ inclusion of “online or at home” among the contingent features of schools about which state aid to families might be indifferent. Online schooling can be a pastiche. It need not be a single school but can be a collage of courses and activities culled from various sources. Once this method of assembling an education takes root – it is easiest to see how this might happen at the secondary level – then the idea of aiding schools and not schoolchildren stops making any sense at all. That will be the point where the paradigm shift becomes irreversible.