The Panopticon of Public Education Part 4: Dismantling the Monopoly

So, what are the options for challenging the de facto monopoly of the public education system?  To the educational layman, there are some interesting (and perhaps hopeful) ideas already at work.

1. Charter schools.  First showed up in Minnesota in 1991, the most well known and practiced variation that is part of the public system.  According to the National Education Association website (and the links contained therein),

Charter schools are publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each charter school’s charter.

NEA believes that charter schools and other nontraditional public school options have the potential to facilitate education reforms and develop new and creative teaching methods that can be replicated in traditional public schools for the benefit of all children.

The NEA goes on to recommend that charters be granted by local school boards; use public funding; operate under the same labor relations structure as traditional public schools; and not allow private schools to convert to a charter model; and to especially ensure that any charter school operates in a purely secular manner.  Some of this sounds ok, and there is some evidence that, if properly managed, the charter model can provide both differentiation in offering and differentiated (read:  better) outcomes.  In post-Katrina New Orleans, all of the public schools have been converted to charters.

After Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans laid off every public-school teacher and started from scratch… Eight years after Katrina, more than 80 percent of the city’s students now attend a charter school. And the early results are amazing.  National Journal  April 2013

Not perfect, but worth a hard look.

2. Private schools.  A fairly straightforward and familiar model, whereby both secular and religious benefactors and paying customers support this alternative.  Essentially these are run as for-profit businesses.  Standards and regulation of private schools is generally a state by state proposition.  An interactive map is available on the U.S. Department of Education website which allows navigation to several states’ regs, including Minnesota.  A large pdf file linked to the DOE site has the regs for every state.  Home schooling is a form of private school and is covered by the same state regulations.  Of course, in order to successfully compete any private school must provide value in the form of higher outcomes or a differentiated cultural experience (such as daily Mass for a Catholic school), due to the fact that, without a voucher system available, parents are “paying twice” with both property taxes and the private school’s tuition fees.  Any parent sacrificing the $2000 to $20,000 to send a child to a private school, particular a Catholic school, is to be commended, and at the same time cautioned to push their Catholic school for continuous improvement in outcomes and cost containment.

3. Online schools.  A newer model of education that tends to come in many forms depending on the location and situation of the student.  The source of instruction and funding can be traditional public, chartered public, or private.

The main differences between online learning and a traditional classroom are location and accessibility.  Online learning—simply defined as the use of multimedia technologies and the Internet for educational content—can take on many forms. It can be purely online, with no face-to-face meetings, or provide blended learning, a combination of online and face-to-face learning. It can be synchronous (students working together and/or with instructors “live”) or asynchronous (students working largely on their own).  Instruction can be provided by a subject matter expert, or a teacher guide, through collaborative exploration or largely through selfdirected study. Instruction can also be facilitated by a “learning coach,” often the role played by lab attendants in virtual high school classes and parents in K-8 settings, who provides the face-to-face counterpart for a virtual teacher.     U.S. Department of Education Secretary’s No Child Left Behind Leadership Summit White Paper

So, with these several options to traditional public education available, what can we do to break the stranglehold that the status quo has on our children and our wallets?  The key is to change the environment from the closed-loop, insular system we have today to an open marketplace of ideas and experimentation and parent freedom.  Dismantling the public school monopoly does not mean destroying the public school system– it has served us well as a nation, at least until the last few decades.  Competition and choice are the two principles we must adhere to:  competition between the means of education, and choice for parents in where they spend their educational dollar.  It won’t be easy, but some steps for consideration which represent action at many levels include:

  • pass “right to work” legislation that opens the door to a freer labor market and to meritocracy vs. tenure.  If the current teachers’ union creates the best value for their constituency, its membership will grow and be strong.  If not, teachers should be able to become a “free agent” in the educational job market.
  • apply the principle of subsidiarity and resist federal (and in many cases state) control of our schools, and demand that local school boards step up to their leadership accountabilities.
  • Advocate for school choice and vouchers at the local level.  The NEA opposes vouchers, naturally.
  • Attend local board meetings and get involved.  Put these meetings on your calendar and read the minutes when possible.
  • Ask the superintendent  and principle(s) what three measures have the school  or school system taken, to become more efficient
  • Demand a complete accounting of your schools’ spending, and compare it to its budget.
  • Until such transparency is provided, simply vote no (and work to convince others to do so) on all referenda and levies.
  • If your child comes home with stories about unfair treatment or overall bad teachers, ask for details and take that to the Principal.  Demand an explanation.
  • Support Catholic school options.  If a voucher system was available, parents would have a much easier time choosing the religion-based schools.

The public school monopoly can and should be taken apart and replaced with learning models that are responsive to the local community and might include charter-style curriculum, on-line learning options, and voucher-style school choice.


  1. Didymus says:

    “Education as a whole should be a function of Society as distinct from the State, the education of a given child the responsibility of his parents primarily. Only so shall we have the right order in which the citizens get the State they want as against the monstrous perversion of order in which the State gets the citizens it wants.” Frank Sheed,

    • Timshel says:

      I’m search the internet for Mr. Sheed’s books, in direct opposition to the advice to read books abhorrent to my own views…

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