If you were designing a K-12 education system from scratch, with no preconceived notions, and taking full account of the breathtaking technological innovations that have made possible a high-quality, highly personalized education for every child, what would that system look like?
Chances are that it would look little like the hidebound, bureaucratic, expensive, top-down, one-size-fits-all, command-and-control, inefficient, reform-resistant, administratively bloated, special-interest manipulated, obsolete, impersonal bricks-and-mortar system that represents the most disastrous failure of central planning west of Communist China and south of the United States Postal Service.
And yet, that is the system to which the vast majority of American schoolchildren are consigned. Little wonder that American high schoolers rank 21st out of 30 economically advanced nations in science literacy and 25th in math. Our nation cannot continue to thrive so long as our schools are pumping out mediocre graduates who cannot compete effectively in the world economy.
The proliferation of school choice—through open public school enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, school vouchers, and scholarship tax credits—has expanded educational opportunities and competition within American K-12 education. Charter schools, in particular, often provide world-class educational programs to a growing number of children, and they sometimes offer individualized, technology-based programs.
But most existing school choice programs provide variations of the same nineteenth-century model that continues to dominate K-12 education: classroom-based instruction in a bricks-and-mortar setting. The school choice programs operate within a system in which the vast majority of funding is directed toward school districts, based on student counts. Charter and voucher programs make that funding transportable to particular types of alternative schools, but do not give families full control of funding to maximize opportunities for their children.
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