Has the Education Revolution Arrived?

June 10, 2010

There’s probably no American institution that is more un-American than K-12 education.

It’s founded on 19th century Prussian totalitarianism. Attendance is mandatory. Politicians -- i.e., school boards -- are in charge. In most districts, teachers and even administrators are unionized, so innovation is strangled and salary hikes, regardless of performance, are automatic.

Not a system suited for a nation of risk-takers and free-thinkers, is it?

To the casual observer, schooling doesn’t appear likely to change anytime soon. Most parents, stuck paying taxes to support their local education bureaucracy, are content to leave the instruction of their children to government employees. Taxpayers occasionally rise up when the levies that fund schools bite too deeply, but such revolts usually fade when economic conditions improve. And education unions? Next to the entitlement lobby, they’re the nation’s most powerful political force. They spread around gobs of campaign cash, run a PR shop that’s seldom bested, and influence the votes of millions of dues-payers.

Look closely, and you’ll spot some cracks in Fortress Government Schooling. One encouraging development was recently profiled in a policy brief published by the James Madison Institute, the Sunshine State’s free-market think tank. Michael Horn, the cofounder of the Innosight Institute, penned an overview of the Florida Virtual School (FLVS). The program started in 1997, with a mere $200,000. Originally designed for “students in rural schools … and students in urban districts who did not have access to certain courses because of scheduling conflicts and overcrowded classrooms,” it now serves over 70,000.

In 2003, Florida legislators included the FLVS in the state’s normal school-finance stream. Horn says that action gave it “a self-sustaining funding model by which [it] could grow organically and according to student demand.” Even better, lawmakers added “a performance-based provision by which the school would receive per-pupil funds only for those students who successfully completed and passed their courses.” As a result, when compared to traditional schools, the “FLVS is less expensive.”

Technology is surely playing a role in the growth of homeschooling. The National Home Education Research Institute estimates that 2 million children were homeschooled in 2008-2009, and annual growth could be as high as 12 percent.

Homeschooling’s results are nothing short of stellar, observed Michael Van Beek of Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy: “A report by the National Home Education Research Institute … found that home-schooled students score 34 to 39 percentage points above the average standardized test score. This puts the home-school national average score at about the 80th percentile in language arts, math, [and] social studies and almost [the] 90th percentile in reading.”

There is cause to view predictions of the death of America’s school structure skeptically. In the 1990s, the undeniable success of two voucher programs was supposed to usher in a new era of choice. It didn’t -- teacher unions saw to that. Charter schools were the next wave of reform, but since they remain largely under government’s thumb, success has been limited.

This time, the revolution could be real. Money is one reason. Local and state governments, the primary funders of schools, are busted. Given the manifest failure of the “stimulus” -- much of which went to prop up subsidized healthcare and education -- Washington can’t be counted on to help in the near future. With school-related expenses seizing a huge portion of non-federal public coffers, pols have no choice but to challenge educrats to economize. In New Jersey, gutsy Governor Chris Christie has denounced the New Jersey Education Association (annual budget: $130 million) for being “about the accumulation and exercise of raw power.”

Demographic shifts offer additional portents that primary and secondary education can be transformed. Women are having fewer children, and are giving birth later in life. It’s easier to homeschool one child than three or four -- easier to find the bucks for private school, too. Still need help? States have begun to adopt tuition tax credits for individuals, as well as corporations that donate to the heroic foundations that rescue urban kids from rotten government schools.

Online learning, Horn writes, “is a disruptive innovation that has the potential to help transform the present-day monolithic, factory-model education system into a student-centric and far more affordable one that is suited to the needs of the 21st century.” The same can be said for homeschooling and scholarship charities.

Government schools were always a terrible idea. Now that family structure has changed, the economy is at historic lows, and treasuries are bare, K-12 education might finally be ready for real reform.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) is a writer, commentator and lecturer. He lives in Connecticut.

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