Reforming K-12 Education from the Outside In

Published September 1, 2006

What can education reformers, including parents, do to help foster a more competitive environment to help improve K-12 education now, without having to await anyone’s permission?

The public education dream of “one best system” is belied by numerous failing public systems. Moreover, the weak competition these public schools provide does little to lift nonprofit private schools from their own mediocrity.

Reforming public schools internally by bureaucratic measures is theoretically possible, but on the practical level it is exceedingly difficult. Even indirect reforms, such as government-funded vouchers, are politically difficult to enact.

Private Action

However, there are ways outside of the political sphere to improve our K-12 school systems, both public and private. Parents and other interested parties have considerable power to influence our K-12 schools, even when they lack the wherewithal to pursue alternatives.

Unfortunately, most parents are ignorant of schools’ real condition and the limits of their children’s academic skills–kind of an “ignorance is bliss” situation. Once armed with facts, however, they generally become eager to deal with the problems they see. Fortunately, they have many alternatives, as the following discussion shows.

Several Options

  • External achievement testing. School systems generally use achievement tests to determine children’s competency. That sounds good, but the test results often are grossly inflated to make the students look better than they are. If public schools can’t be trusted to do this testing, parents should use independent testing services. That would help identify problems and potential remedies.
  • Better publicly available information. Education reporters are often ignorant of some of the problems within our schools. They tend to focus too much on public schools. What can be done to improve media coverage? Perhaps the simplest solution is the letter to the editor. Individuals with knowledge about school problems can participate in school board meetings or otherwise get themselves covered by the media. Or they could write an op-ed.

As parents learn more about their children’s schools, they become more discriminating customers. As savvy consumers, they can make better choices among the various schooling options. Some are able to afford private schools or turn to homeschooling. The rest have information with which they can seek help from others.

  • Expand the for-profit sector. The competition between public and nonprofit private schools is weak. The latter have the modest incentive of solvency to improve their performance, but not the strong motivation of real profits. For-profit schools exist and generally not only outperform their nonprofit private counterparts, but do so for lower tuition charges.

I foresee tuition charges for for-profit schools becoming markedly lower than those of pricy private academies–maybe even less than the relatively inexpensive Catholic parochial schools. The promise for-profit schools hold is not only cost-effectiveness and superior instruction but also the prospect of energizing their nonprofit private and public school rivals through robust competition.

  • Encouraging private vouchers to foster more competition. Private vouchers (scholarships) are provided through charity. Demand far outstrips supply. As donors become better aware of the need, the supply should increase. Better publicity about the true condition of our K-12 schools can help build that awareness.
  • Micro-vouchers can multiply the benefits of charitable resources. Generally, in a public school or even a private school it’s easy to see that some classes are taught well while others are not. Parents, so informed, might simply wish to enroll their children temporarily in alternative instruction to avoid a bad class. If they can’t afford that, they might want a scholarship or voucher to pay for it.

If private voucher foundations would provide special limited vouchers that would cover these instructional gaps, their expenses over the 13-year K-12 sequence of educating any given child would be much less than if they were providing vouchers throughout that child’s entire time in the K-12 system.

Such vouchers are called micro-vouchers. If enough micro-vouchers are available, parents of an entire classroom of children could remove many or all of them from an inadequate teacher. That would send unmistakable feedback to school administrators.

  • Legal actions can help. Parents and others can seek remedies in the law. They can file lawsuits to recover damages or to remedy schools’ wrongful actions. For example, by using the private testing services discussed above, parents could subsequently use legal means to force schools to properly retain or advance their children into academically appropriate grade levels. Suits could be filed for the costs of remedial instruction. Even employers of educationally deficient high school graduates could sue.
  • Parent organizations can be changed. Parents have traditionally joined associations intended to benefit their children’s schools. The National Parent Teacher Association and its affiliates are the largest of these. Unfortunately, these organizations reflect more the interests of teachers, unions, and school officials than those of the students.

I foresee a different type of organization that would combine parents and pupils while excluding school personnel. It would advocate for children. It would have the power of numbers to bolster its persuasiveness. It could deal directly with school administrators or could resort to external remedies on its own.

Such organizations could be the vehicle by which many of the preceding proposals could be accomplished. For example, they could deal with incompetent instruction by organizing alternative instruction funded by micro-vouchers. The result would be better instruction for children, as well as constructive feedback to schools.

Fundraising Assistance

Most of these proposals require funds. Contributions must be solicited from potential donors. But when parents and other interested parties are better informed about the conditions in our schools, they are motivated to help improve them. The right kind of publicity can help motivate donors to provide some of what’s needed.

Interested parties can take action now. Those with financial resources can donate. Some can offer their labor and skills as volunteers. Leaders can lead. Aware parents can seek alternatives for their children. There is much to be done, and those seeking to press for real reforms can get started now.

David V. Anderson is planning a franchise network of for-profit K-12 schools.

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