The responsibility of a public school board is to make sure that families have the broadest number of enrollment options available to them and that these schools charge reasonable prices, and then hold the schools accountable for their academic results.
The second element of this two-fold policy strategy is great diversity in the types of schools children can attend, the approaches to instruction professionals use, and the preparation individuals receive to become educators, with families free to choose the schools that best meet their needs. Whereas in other areas of life we tend to assume the superiority of freedom to choose among a variety of options, in education we have too readily allowed a highly restricted group of people to obtain and sustain a monopoly over the supply of a vital service.
For the most part, while the world, our country, and our families have changed, all of them quite dramatically, our schools have not. Though some diversity has always been a part of our nation's schools—open schools, alternative schools, Montessori schools, magnet schools—it has been a minor element. The predominant model today is an 8 AM to 3 PM day, Monday through Friday, nine months per year, with one teacher trained by a university school of education, lecturing most of the time using little more than the technology of the book. We are too big and diverse a country to expect this one school model to fit everyone's needs. Schools must become much more customer-driven, to meet the variety of needs, values, and traditions of many different young people, families, and communities. This process is taking place, though far too slowly.
As states and communities begin to adopt standards and adapt them to their different situations, they will focus attention on and judge quality by the academic results students achieve. There will be less monopoly control and centralized government regulation of schools, what they do, and of how educational services are delivered. This decentralization will lead to greater diversity, rather than uniformity, in the ways schools organize and configure themselves and in the methods and techniques teachers use to teach to these high standards.
Deregulation must also apply to the education profession. In our quest for educators, we cannot limit ourselves to graduates of teacher or administrator training programs. We need to foster different paths into the classroom and the administrator's office. Individuals with sound character who know their subjects, want to teach children, and are willing to work with master teachers to learn the art and craft of teaching should be permitted to teach or administer in America's schools.
One example of the effort to give families more choices of distinctive schools and programs is the move to create independent public schools-what some call charter or outcome schools. Nine states have enacted charter-school legislation, and several others are considering it. Though details vary by state, such plans allow teachers and other qualified individuals, including parents, to request permission from a designated local or state authority to start a new charter school. These schools of choice—teaching to world-class standards of achievement—attract students. No one is assigned to them.
The terms of the school charter free teachers from the regulations and bureaucratic red tape that strangle originality and diversity. In exchange, the teachers are held accountable for students learning and mastering agreed-upon knowledge and skills. In short, teachers swap red tape for results and develop a system of accountability based on well-defined outcomes—the original deal first proposed by the governors in 1985 and reiterated at the Education Summit in 1989.
Ted Kolderie says, "The object of charter schools is not just to create a few good schools [but] to improve all schools. Districts do not want to lose kids and the money that comes with them. They will make improvements to attract kids back from charter schools or before a charter even appears."
In this and other examples, a new understanding of the nature of a "public" school and its governance begins to emerge. Any school that embraces world-class standards, meets nondiscrimination, health, and safety requirements, and is held accountable for its results becomes a public school, without reference to whether a government school board owns, operates, or funds it. The responsibility of a public school board is to make sure that families have the broadest number of enrollment options available to them and that these schools charge reasonable prices, and then hold the schools accountable for their academic results. This approach could lead to boards contracting out services, including the management of schools by for-profit groups.
If we succeed in creating schools that focus on results—by teaching to high, world-class standards, providing teachers and principals with less red tape and more flexibility, and making schools increasingly diverse—it will make less and less sense to have education bureaucrats or courts assign children to schools. Schools will attract students. By their choices, parents will keep the standards high, because they will have the ability to vote with their feet-and their pocketbooks. The present monopoly of education by government schools must be overcome.
The extent of this choice is controversial. If public schools are defined and reconfigured in the way suggested here, much of what needs to be done can occur under public-school choice. Though many would disagree, I believe that choice plans should include private schools, including religious ones. These schools should have the option to become part of any publicly funded choice system, subject to the same small amount of regulation applied to the "reinvented" public schools described here. Such plans could also provide some help to parents who choose to send their children to any lawfully authorized home school.
There are various proposals as to how schools would receive money under a choice plan that includes today's nongovernment schools. We should do on the elementary and secondary levels what we did on the university level after World War 11: create a G.I. Bill for children, which would provide families with scholarship dollars to spend at the school of their choice or even purchase additional academic services for their child. (And this should be done without adding layers of regulation to currently private schools.) Since these scholarship dollars would be aid to families, not to schools, they could be used at any lawfully operating school-public, private, or religious. Aid to families has been recognized by the Supreme Court as avoiding the constitutional difficulties that exist now under the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.