New Hope for Public Schools

July 2000

This essay was published by The Hoover Institution, July 30, 2000.

As the political struggles rage over charters, vouchers, and the power of teachers’ unions, important new intellectual and financial resources are flowing into education. New people are learning how to teach, start, and run schools; incorporate technology; and use cultural resources in ways that the government-run system of schools has ignored. K–12 education is being recapitalized, and the change is unstoppable because it is based on individual choices and private initiative.

Up until five years ago, the government-run school system had become a world unto itself, employing teachers and principals who with rare exceptions had never had any other job and were insulated from the mainstream economy. Educators feared being tainted by contacts with business and churches. Schools would accept money for after-school tutoring programs and "enrichment" experiences for students, but they kept foundations and other organizations at arm’s length from the schools’ core teaching activities.

The result was an intellectually impoverished government school system, even in cities that were rich with educated people, universities, museums, high-technology companies, great orchestras, and immense private wealth. These assets were considered irrelevant; only the government school system could provide public education. The government-run schools were also hamstrung by teacher certification rules and closed shops that excluded highly qualified people and protected incumbents whatever their level of performance.

The recapitalization of American education is changing all this. More than 500,000 educated home-school parents are learning to teach, and many want to continue even when their own children move on. Charter schools are employing tens of thousands of people who would not have been allowed to lead or teach in conventional public schools, and thousands of midcareer professionals are becoming teachers and helping to fill a giant math and science skills deficit.

Powerhouse private institutions are entering education. Hundreds of businesses and philanthropies are investing money and learning how to start and manage charter and voucher-funded schools. Edison, New American Schools, and the California-based New Schools Venture Fund are examples of private investments that create new ways of running schools and educating children. More than 15,000 people, mostly from business and the professions, are serving on the charter school boards, learning what it takes to make a school work for kids. Black Protestant churches are imitating the Catholic example in creating schools for all children, not just for believers.

Intellectual and financial resources that were once sealed off from K–12 education are now flowing in. Although some government school systems try to remain aloof, they cannot resist the people, ideas, and money that are creating new schools, strengthening existing ones, giving parents choices, and making a difference for children.

Laws and policies must and will change, so that many organizations can run public schools, families can have choices, and schools can compete for students and teachers. Events have gotten ahead of politics. Through private initiative, the intellectual resources of entire communities are becoming available for the education of children, especially the poor. That, not bureaucratic control, should be the defining feature of public education.

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