Schools are controlled by the government, but they serve specific communities with niche needs. How can education be publicly funded but privately managed?
Public education struggles with two conflicting facts. First, public schools are small craft organizations that require close teamwork and constant adaptation to the unpredictable development of students. Second, they are government agencies always subject to constraints imposed through politics and legal processes.
In the more than half-century since Brown v. Board of Education, the second set of facts has dominated the first. Public schools have been subject to court orders about how particular students must be educated; federal and state regulations that dictate how money is used, students are grouped, and teachers work; and labor contracts that force schools to employ teachers who are poorly matched to the needs of students and the strengths of other teachers.
School leadership, personal responsibility, and accountability have been driven out of schools, especially in big cities where local politics adds to the burden of regulation. This is not, as some have claimed, inevitable when adults educate other people's children. Private schools govern themselves, attract like-minded faculty members and parents, and can turn on a dime when students' needs change.
At its core, today's debate about K-12 public education is
about how to make public sponsorship compatible with effective education.
Charter schools are public schools that can take well-defined approaches to
instruction, assemble teams of educators who want to collaborate, and attract
parents who have choices. Portfolio school districts like
combination of chartering and instructional technology is also opening public
education to individualization and innovation that could make schools much more
effective for all children. Rocketship, a chain of charter schools based in
New York City's Innovation Zone is also developing "hybrid" schools that make new uses of technology and profoundly change what students and teachers do every day. Without deregulation, including freedom to hire teachers and principals committed to these new ideas, public education would exclude such approaches.
These arrangements are good for serious educators and for children and families, but they rely on human judgment and performance, and not every freed-up public school is a success. Groups that prospered under the old system are constantly looking for problems that can justify the return of regulation. That won't happen as long as the attentive public remembers that there are many ways government can destroy good schools, and only one known way that it can support them.
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