United States Educational Policy
The Basics of Educational Policy, The Pressure for Reform in American Education, Defining Policy
Education is an instrument of the broader social order. When society changes, education, sooner or later, also changes. Few activities or agencies, however, change as slowly, or in such small increments, as formal education–both schools and colleges as well as both public and private institutions. Education's roots are deep and wide, penetrating almost every facet of society. Hence, education is subject to virtually every political force, including those that want change and those that want to protect the status quo.
Public K–12 education–which operates across fifty states, 14,000 local school districts, and 100,000 schools; involves 5 million employees and more than 48 million students; and costs more than $2 billion each day–is too large, too costly, and too enmeshed in political dynamics to change quickly. Postsecondary institutions–colleges and universities–have become equally ponderous. With the advent of post– World War II enrollment increases; the significance of university-based research for preserving the nation's economic, medical, and military preeminence; and the substantial assumption of student financial aid by government, higher education also has become a major feature of the political landscape and become engulfed by much of the inertia that immobilizes lower schools.
For most of American history, the nation's most prestigious elementary and secondary schools and elite colleges have been few in number, and their private charters and religious affiliations have rendered them generally independent of government. But for colleges and universities, nearly all of which, in the early twenty-first century, are accepting student financial-aid subsidies from government and engaging in government-sponsored research, this situation has changed. Government now is a major constituent for higher education, both public and private.
Even for private preparatory and religious elementary and secondary schools, the condition of independence from government could change. If the U.S. Supreme Court approves allocation of public funds for private and religious institutions, private schools could come under the full umbrella of public policy in the same way as their public institutional counterparts.
Still, even as subjects of increasing politicization, and even if only at a glacial pace, schools and colleges do change. Formal education at the onset of the twenty-first century exhibited many differences from that of even thirty years previous, and it certainly was different from what children and parents experienced in the early part of the twentieth century.
The Basics of Educational Policy
Societies rely upon the informal socialization of youth and immigrants and the formal education of citizens to preserve the polity and facilitate pursuit of individuals' collective and personal preferences. Because of this mediating role in maintaining a society, formal education systems, and those who steer them, are unusually sensitive to alterations in citizens' will or shifts in decision makers' views. When a society perceives itself subjected to threat or is engrossed in a major economic, technological, demographic, or ecological transformation, the education system is a principal instrument to which it turns in order to adjust to change and seek a new social equilibrium.
The larger and more democratic a society, the less linear and less transparent its education system alterations will be. In a dictatorship or narrow oligarchy, it is relatively easy to change an education system. In the booming, buzzing cacophony of the open, modern information age and a globally interdependent society, education reform is episodic, conflict prone, inconsistent, and, sometimes painful.
Indeed, the more porous and dynamic a society, the more inconsistent and conflictual its efforts to change its education system will appear. Interests deeply rooted in spheres such as economics, religion, ideology, institutions, geography, race, and ethnicity will vie to have their worldview represented most forcefully in whatever education system emerges. These are the centrifugal forces that threaten the momentum and unity of any society. Countering these are centripetal (unifying) forces, mostly institutions, ideologies, and influential individuals that seek consensus and cohesion. It is the tension between these dynamics that eventually shapes changes to a democracy's education system.
The Pressure for Reform in American Education
The twentieth century, particularly its last two decades, represented a period of remarkably intense change. A brief review of what took place globally during this period suggests the reason why America's education system has been under such intense pressure to reform.
The post–World War II cold war rivalry between East and West ended in the early 1990s. Democratic capitalism generally surmounted totalitarian socialism to become the world's dominant political economy. Modern communication and transportation technologies contributed to globally oriented, highly mobile, and rapidly paced societies. Economic developments created a heretofore-unknown degree of individual, organizational, and international interdependence. The United States emerged as the leading economic and political power in the world. This condition, coupled with globalization, generated added diplomatic, military, and humanitarian responsibilities for the nation and its citizens.
The United States is fortunate in having vast resources. It has become expected, however, to deploy these riches not only for the protection and promotion of its citizens but also for the well-being of the world. Issues of health in Africa, overpopulation in Asia, political instability in Latin America, religious conflict in the Middle East, trade restrictions in Europe, ozone depletion in Antarctica, overfishing in the North Atlantic, or ice cap reductions in the Arctic are no longer remote issues. The eventual outcome of these conditions now matters as much for a child being raised on a productive family farm in South Dakota as to an apartheid-liberated farm family in South Africa.
This new and fast-paced world has dampened some old issues. Widespread fears of nuclear annihilation, pestilence, and global famine have become ameliorated. But age-old concerns regarding religious and racial intolerance, social injustice, economic inequality, and discouraging instances of inhumanity have by no means been eliminated. Even a few new issues have evolved, for example, fear of widespread environmental degradation and uneven economic development between nations in the northern and southern hemispheres.
In making its adjustments to the new global world, American education policy is moving on two fronts simultaneously. First, the new world order necessitates that everyone be educated. Hence, issues of access and equality remain important. Second, it is no longer sufficient that individuals simply be exposed to schooling, it is increasingly important that they actually learn. Hence, the additional policy pressure is to render education institutions effective, both in achieving their objectives and in the use of the vast resources they command. The upshot is that both equality and efficiency are paramount issues on the education policy agenda. When pressures emerge, however, for maximization of these two ends, then, inevitably, counterforces arise out of reaction to protect and extend the other policy objective, liberty.
Policy is one of the principal vectors through which influence flows between the larger society and education institutions. The term policy refers to the decisions and rules enacted by the three branches of government at all levels–national, state, and local. The policy pipeline is capable of reciprocal transmission. Whereas society's preferences shape and continually reshape education, the outcomes of education continually influence the values and preferences of the broader society.
The word policy is derived from the Greek polis, referring to city or citizen. Subsequent Roman usage led to the term polity, meaning government, government organization, regime, or nation. In modern parlance, policy refers to a uniform decision rule, a regulation, or a set of prescriptions that applies in all similar circumstances. The term public policy refers to a government-specified or -enacted decision rule. Of course, when people speak of education policy, or at least public education policy, they are referring to government decision rules regarding education, schools, colleges, or related matters.
Government rules regarding school attendance, graduation, college entry, what will be studied, who will teach, who will be paid, and who will pay are all illustrations of education policies. Policies are enacted by all three branches of government in the form of executive orders from the president, governors, and mayors; statutes and ordinances enacted by legislative bodies such as the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, and city councils; and judicial decisions issued by courts.
The Public Values Underlying Education Policy
American culture contains three strongly held values that significantly influence public policy in general and education policy specifically. They are equality, efficiency, and liberty. Government actions regarding national defense, housing, taxation, antitrust regulation, racial desegregation, and literally hundreds of other policy dimensions, including education, are motivated and molded by one or more of these three values.
The overwhelming majority of the public views equality, liberty, and efficiency as conditions that government should attempt to maximize. The historical roots of these values are deeply embedded in the cultural streams that comprise the common heritage of the United States. These values permeate the ideologies promulgated by political parties, religions, schools, and other social institutions.
Despite widespread public devotion to equality, efficiency, and liberty as abstract goals, it is almost impossible to pursue these values to their ultimate practical fulfillment. At their roots, the three desired conditions are inconsistent and antithetical. Exclusive or concentrated pursuit of equality restricts or eliminates liberty and efficiency. Similarly, onesided attention to either one of the other values reduces the remaining two. Consequently, efforts to rearrange society so as to maximize fulfillment of one of the three values are constrained by forces desiring to enhance or preserve the status quo of one or both of the others.
The three values are always suspended in dynamic equilibrium. The practical relationships among them constantly shift; the balance at any particular point in time is fixed as a consequence of a complicated series of compromises made within the political and economic systems.
It can be argued that liberty or freedom is the highest of the three values. Efficiency for its own sake is absent much meaning. The justification for desiring that an endeavor be undertaken efficiently is to conserve resources that then can be used for other endeavors, thus achieving greater equality or expanding choice. Similarly, equality as an end in itself appears hollow. Few if any persons desire absolute parity with their peers. Rather, equality of wealth, power, and circumstance can be viewed as desirable means to the end of greater opportunity or choice. Education is one of the prime instruments through which American society attempts to promote fulfillment of all three values.
Efficiency Education as Policy Instrument in the Pursuit of Equality and Liberty
Various large-scale social movements have, over time, contributed to formal education's place among society's major institutions. For example, the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation encouraged education as a means to facilitate individual interpretation of religious scriptures. Similarly, among eighteenth-century leaders of the new republic, the United States, education was viewed as a means to enable one to participate as an equal in the affairs of government. Under these circumstances, education was important to ensure political liberty. It was not until the nineteenth century, however, that formal education began to assume significance for economic purposes in Western societies.
The increasing technical complexity of nineteenth-century industrialization necessitated a more highly educated workforce. This condition provoked widespread provision of public schooling, and, in subsequent periods, schooling has been taken as an important contributor to economic efficiency.
In the opening of one of his famous mid-nineteenth-century annual reports as secretary for the Massachusetts Board of Education, Horace Mann said "Education prevents being poor." Here was one of the first highly visible expressions of the new nineteenth-century relationship between education and economic well-being. By the twentieth century, and even more so in the early twenty-first century, schooling has been rendered crucial for an individual's economic and social success. Consequently, schooling has assumed new importance for fulfilling the practical expression of individual equality.
Beginning with the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and continuing with the vast increase in federal government education programs of the 1960s and the education finance reform efforts of the 1970s, a major portion of mid- and late twentieth-century education policy was directed at achieving greater equality.
Equality in and Access to Education
In the latter half of the twentieth century, courts began to apply the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause to a spectrum of social conditions, such as voting rights, housing, employment, and education. This Civil War–era constitutional provision stretched the mantle of federally protected civil liberties to include state government. Hence, the 1950s and several decades thereafter marked a period of intense judicial activism by which courts began to ensure that federally guaranteed civil rights were not overridden by state or local policies. A long-heralded era of "local control" regarding schools was now about to be substantially restricted.
Racial desegregation. It is possible that the topic of racial desegregation provoked greater controversy in the United States than any other public policy issue in the last half of the twentieth century. National guard mobilization, massive public demonstrations, civil disobedience, heated political campaigns, acrimonious school board elections, and movements aiming to recall state officials are but a few illustrations of the intensity of the conflict.
The initial U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education incorporated social science evidence in support of the view that legally enforced segregation of schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment and was damaging to minority students. In subsequent years, researchers, primarily sociologists, conducted numerous analytic studies to assess the effects of desegregated schooling. For the most part, results proved ambiguous. No clear path of direct evidentiary proof exists as to whether minority students benefit from desegregated school settings. Even the original social science research cited by the U.S. Supreme Court is disputed in the early twenty-first century. There are those who contend that the entire school desegregation movement, on balance, is a social experiment that has failed. They cite as evidence for their position the following: more African-American children attended racially isolated classes in 2000 than was the case twenty-five years before. Conversely, there is aggregate evidence that suggests racial desegregation is beneficial for socalled minority families and children. For example 2000 census results show that middle-income African-American students more often than their lower income counterparts attend schools in desegregated suburban communities. In such communities, African-American students' academic achievement and economic performance measures are higher. Such studies are unable to control for a host of competing hypotheses such as that those who flourish economically, and who choose a suburban lifestyle, are possibly more motivated personally. The confounding of conditions renders a solid answer difficult.
Despite the ambiguity of social science desegregation results and the mixed success of northern school desegregation efforts, one facet of the issue emerges with relative clarity. The de jure segregated school systems of southern states, with few exceptions, have been successfully dismantled. This is the case not because of the dramatic findings of policy analysts and researchers, but because of the construction of successful legal strategies and judicial enforcement.
Education finance. In 1967 Arthur E. Wise questioned the constitutionality of state school financing arrangements. Wise, then a doctoral student in school administration at the University of Chicago, contributed to the effort to eliminate inequality, not a new set of fiscal analyses, but, rather, the suggestion of a new legal theory. He published his ideas in a 1968 book titled Rich Schools, Poor Schools.
Other legal scholars were quick to follow. Subsequently, John E. Coons, William H. Clune III, and Stephen D. Sugarman wrote Private Wealth and Public Education, which, in a lucid fashion, dissected the operation of state school finance statutes and described a strategy whereby they could be challenged legally. Wise, as well as Coons and his colleagues, formulated the principle of fiscal neutrality, that is, the principle that the quality of a child's schooling should not be a function of wealth, other than the wealth of the state as a whole. By providing a negatively phrased decision rule, permitting courts to strike down existing schemes while allowing legislatures to construct a statutory redress of the inequity, Wise and Coons and his colleagues rescued the fledgling "equal protection" school finance movement from judicial oblivion. Prior to that time, courts were deciding against plaintiffs on grounds that no judicially manageable solutions were apparent.
By the close of the twentieth century, most gross fiscal disparities had been mitigated. Only a few egregious inequities remained. Indeed, a study by Sheila Murray, David Evans, and Robert Schwab demonstrated that most school spending differences were between states, not within states.
In the latter years of the twentieth century, proponents of greater equality of education financing began to alter conventional "equal protection" arguments. They took their cue from the Kentucky Supreme Court in its 1989 Rose v. Council for Better Education decision. Here the court held the state accountable not only for equal financing but also for equal educational opportunity. The Kentucky decision gave rise to a subsequent genre of what has come to be known as "adequacy" suits. In these suits, the distribution of school dollars has not been the consideration as much as the consequences of school dollars. The contention of plaintiffs is that education is a state constitutional responsibility, and, thus, states must ensure that local districts and schools deliver an education adequate for a student to succeed in the workforce and as a democratic citizen.
Special education. Special education was the latest school population category to be the focus for substantial reform. The reform proceeded on two dimensions: the provision of appropriate school services to students with physical and mental disabilities and the provision of bilingual instruction to non- or limited-English-speaking students.
The historic inability or unwillingness of school districts to serve adequately the needs of students with disabilities had long been recognized. As was the case historically with school finance inequities, however, there appeared no easy means by which the situation could be altered. Specialized services can be extraordinarily expensive; school officials claimed that their budgets simply were too stretched to provide them. When state categorical funds were provided for special education, local school districts all too frequently diverted all or a portion of such moneys to subsidize the regular school program. The mid-1960s innovation aimed at rectifying these conditions was the construction of a successful legal theory to mandate change.
The landmark cases are Mills v. Board of Education and Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for students with disabilities and Lau v. Nichols for the non-English speaking. These cases both altered the special education practices of states and local school districts and influenced Congress in enacting the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. The consequence of these movements has been to increase dollar spending for special education by billions. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, American public schools were spending 20 percent of their operating budgets on the education of students with disabilities. No claim is made that all problems have disappeared in the schooling of students with disabilities. At the turn of the twenty-first century, however, the landscape was powerfully different than even a quarter of a century before.
Collective bargaining. Concerns for equity have not concentrated upon students exclusively. Professional educators have also sought means by which they could be treated more equally.
Beginning in the 1950s, teachers began to expand their unions to engage more effectively in collective bargaining with school boards. This development was initiated in large cities and subsequently spread to almost every school district in the United States. To a large degree, increases in organizational size, bureaucratization, and the expansion of administrative levels probably accounted for teachers' feelings of inefficacy and alienation and prompted them to unionize.
Although it frequently is the case that teacher representatives come to the bargaining table with concerns for the welfare of students and respect for the interests of the broader public, their primary allegiance is to teachers' welfare. They cannot legitimately claim to represent the larger public. Nevertheless, duly elected public representatives–school board members–must share decisionmaking authority with them. The outcome is to further centralize school policymaking and to erode the ability of the general public to participate in the process. It is conditions such as these that prompt critics of public education to demand yet other changes.
Higher education. The pursuit of greater equality has also left an imprint on the nation's colleges. For example, Title IX of the Higher Education Act decrees parity in athletics for males and females at postsecondary institutions. In addition the Higher Education Act requires colleges to pledge themselves not to discriminate racially or in other ways if they use federal funding to subsidize student financial aid, promote research, or construct dormitories.
The Pursuit of Efficiency in Education
Efficiency advocates, usually overlooking the substantial expansion in functions expected of America's public schools, claim that per-pupil expenditures nationwide have escalated in a troublesome manner. They argue that even when inflation is discounted, the per-pupil increase in school spending between 1950 and 2000 was 500 percent. The additional funds have been used to purchase items that, according to conventional education wisdom, will facilitate production. For example, class sizes have been reduced, and many categories of instructional and administrative specialists have been added. Despite such added resources, there appear to be no dramatic increases in output. Indeed, to the extent that standardized test scores are valid indicators of school production, output has diminished.
Efficiency has always been a major concern for educational policymakers and school administrators. There have existed points in history, however, at which particular attention has been accorded the topic. The mid-1920s was a time of such intense interest. This period coincided with the expansion of school administration as a specialized field. In an effort to enhance their professionalism, education officials attempted to adopt for schools many of the efficiency techniques then popular in industry. Raymond E. Callahan, in his 1960 book Education and the Cult of Efficiency, described this movement.
School district consolidation was another strategic arrow in the quiver of pre–World War II education efficiency proponents. By 1930 the number of local school districts in the United States had reached its high point–in excess of 125,000 separate units. By 1976 this number had been reduced to approximately 16,000. The number of districts hovered around 14,000 at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This drastic reduction in the number of units of a specialized local government took place in a manner so subtle as virtually to escape the notice of policy analysts. It also took place without a shred of persuasive evidence that it would indeed save money. Nevertheless, it constitutes one of the most dramatic of all changes in America's patterns of government.
In the 1960s, sociologists dominated school efficiency research. The premier study of this period was the Coleman Report, named after its principal author, James S. Coleman. The Coleman team concluded that school quality had little effect on student achievement independent of the social background of students. This finding, even though not so intended, was widely interpreted by the media and other lay sources as meaning that dollars for schools made little difference in student learning. This misunderstood assertion was widely publicized by efficiency advocates, and the Coleman finding served as justification during the 1970s for reducing the trajectory of school spending increases.
At various points in U.S. education history, the term accountability appears as a symbol. It represents a policy effort to control escalating school costs and insufficient student achievement by employing techniques that advocates suggest will improve school productivity. The efficiency movement of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, operating under the episodically popular label of accountability, was launched by the 1983 appearance of A Nation at Risk, a highly visible national report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Seldom has an elite panel issued a document whose thesis was more inaccurate. Paradoxically, seldom has a blue-ribbon report had such a widespread and long-lasting consequence and had such a profound and lasting impact on public opinion and policy.
The report asserted that America's preeminence in defense, technology, economics, science, and industry was threatened by the mediocrity of its public education system. The report left the impression that the United States was about to succumb to a deluge of foreign dominance, unless its schools were rapidly rendered more rigorous. But twenty years later, it became plain to see that the economic slump in which the United States found itself at the report's 1983 issuance was far more a consequence of inefficient management practices than it was the nation's ineffective education system. Also in the intervening period, the Japanese economy plummeted, and its once vaunted education system was unable to protect it from its inefficient financial practices and protectionist trade policies. Indeed, beginning in 2000, Japan took steps to pattern its education system more after the United States. Rightly or wrongly, however, A Nation at Risk launched two decades of education reform in America, and the call for change shows no signs of subsiding.
Illustrating the Changes
The early twenty-first century mantra of educational accountability has an accompanying lexicon. This includes terms and ideas such as high performance schools, high-stakes testing, academic accountability, school effectiveness, organizational efficiency, teacher productivity, performance financing, charter schools, alternative schools, break-the-mold schools, privatizing, outsourcing, and pay for results. These and similar terms are illustrative of the slogans, issues, and topics that dominate American education policy and practice at the onset of the twenty-first century.
Underneath the slogans, two major change strategies have evolved. One is called the standards movement. The other travels under the banner of "competition" or "privatization." The two strategies are not mutually incompatible. Each necessitates government specification of learning standards or curricular goals that schools are expected to meet.
In the standards movement, textbooks and other instructional materials, teacher training, professional licensing, financial arrangements, statewide achievement testing, and performance awards and penalties are expected to be aligned and made consistent with these purposes. Advocates for the second strategy, competition, contend that American automobiles improved in the 1970s only under the threat of foreign competition, and schools are no different. Only when the current public school monopoly is severed, the argument goes, will professional educators be motivated to try harder and teach better. Competition or privatization advocates seek magnet schools, charter schools, voucher plans, parent choice plans, and smaller schools and school districts.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the standards movement held the upper hand. Literally thousands of legislative enactments, commission reports, gubernatorial campaigns, and regulatory activities had been constructed in its support. It was too early, however, to judge its effects.
Competition or choice has not yet seen a full day. Proposals for greater privatization of schooling have not come to dominate either the marketplace of policy ideas nor the practical arena of school operation. Union leaders speak in substantial opposition to privatization. Other critics fear the prospect of religious and ideological extremists being the recipients of government support. There are yet other critics who fear that greater privatization will further impede achieving a vision of a more fully integrated society, both racially and economically.
The U.S. Supreme Court was expected to rule in 2002 on the constitutionality of an Ohio law permitting public funds to be used in support of students' private schooling. Should the court rule favorably on the plan, privatization and competition might receive a substantial boost. An unfavorable decision might slow or substantially stall competition.
The Pursuit of Liberty
A third deeply held value that frequently influences the direction of American education policy is liberty. This value provided a major ideological justification for the revolution that gave birth to the United States as a nation. In an essay on the new Constitution published in the National Gazette on January 17, 1792, James Madison wrote: "In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example, and France has followed it on charters of power granted by liberty."
For Americans, liberty has meant the freedom to choose, to be able to select from among different courses of action. The desire for choice fueled the historical American affection for a market economy. Competition among producers, along with other benefits, is held to expand the range of items from which consumers can choose. In the public sector, responsive governmental institutions are taken to be a crucial element for the expressions and preservation of choice and liberty.
In the view of those who initially designed the structures of American government, authority was vested in the citizenry, who then delegated the power to govern to selected representatives. A measure of representatives' effectiveness was the degree to which they were responsive to the will of those they governed. Lack of responsiveness eroded power of the citizenry and, thus, constituted grounds for removal from office.
A second means for preserving liberty was to dispense governmental authority widely. This accounts for the separation of powers between three branches and over various levels of government. Efforts to inhibit accumulation of power also account for the deliberate fragmentation of decision-making authority, with some specific powers accorded to the federal government, some accorded to the states, and some reserved for the people themselves. Historically, the power to make educational decisions was structured in the same fashion. Centralized authority was viewed as perilous because of the prospect of exerting widespread control and uniformity. Formation of literally thousands of small local school districts, portending both inefficiency and inequality, was intended as an antidote to the accumulation of power. Proximity to constituents, coupled with the electoral process, was taken as a means to enhance governmental responsiveness and preserve liberty.
The federal constitution provides the state governments with ultimate legal responsibility for school decision-making. Historically states delegated substantial policy discretion to local units of government. In the period since World War II, however, factors such as increasing school costs, the politicization of school decisions, and intensified efforts to achieve greater equality of educational opportunity and more efficient use of school resources have heightened state-level participation.
A consequence of this increased state participation has been to remove a large measure of decisionmaking discretion from local education authorities. For example, state specifications on accountability dimensions such as the school curriculum, teacher salaries and working conditions, graduation requirements, and school architecture have increased markedly. Fewer persons now determine more decisions regarding schools. Choice is restricted, the ability of local officials to respond to constituent preferences is constrained, and, at least in a legal sense, local autonomy, liberty, and probably efficiency have been diminished.
By the latter half of the 1960s, a reaction to the diminished status of representativeness had begun. Requests for change stemmed initially from ethnic enclaves in large cities, which perceived themselves as relatively impotent in affecting the operation of their children's schools. They demanded what was then labeled "community control." For example, several community-control experiments were attempted in the New York City schools. The state legislature ultimately recognized the growing political tide by dividing New York City into thirty-two elementary school districts. Given that each of the thirty-two averaged 30,000 students, approximately the size of the entire school system of the city of Syracuse, this could not realistically be characterized as community control. Nevertheless, each of New York's local districts was authorized to elect a nine-member local board of education. Thus, New York's elected school policymakers grew from 9 to 297.
Reaction to the dilution of representativeness also reached Congress. Federal education acts were amended in the early 1970s to mandate parent participation in the making of decisions about the use of federal program funds. Also, by the mid-1970s several state legislatures were requiring formation of parent advisory councils at school sites. Numerous local school districts were voluntarily implementing plans for wider involvement of citizens in school decision-making.
By the 1990s, and extending into the twenty-first century, liberty advocates were pursuing more powerful strategies than simply enhanced parent advisory councils. The new expressions of liberty were charter schools and voucher plans.
Charter schools in effect are local schools free to operate outside the restraint of a school district. Their operating charter can be granted either by state authority or, in some instances, by a local school board. They can be private or public. They derive their financial support from public sources. They are the equivalent of so-called grant-maintained schools in Great Britain. They are required to have a board of directors and to be fiscally responsible. In most states, charter schools are also required to adhere to a minimal state curriculum and to administer state standardized achievement tests. Students are free to attend charter schools or to select their regularly assigned public school.
Voucher plans involve public education funds flowing to households that then choose the school for their children. Vouchers are the subject of experimentation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio; and San Antonio, Texas. They are unusually controversial because their subsidy may pierce the conventional First Amendment prohibition of public funding in support of religious causes. In June 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students in Cleveland may use state-funded vouchers to pay tuition at private schools, including schools with a religious affiliation. The decision in this case is likely to have a significant policy impact for years to come.
Will accountability efforts succeed in elevating U.S. school performance? Will colleges and universities eventually be subjected to the same kind of efficiency requirements experienced by public schools? Will the achievement gap between middle- and lower income students be narrowed? Will public funding of private and religious schools eventually be approved, and, if so, will such arrangements prove the undoing of the great American socialization engine, public schooling?
There is no effort here at predicting the outcome of such queries. The answers will come in time and, no doubt, will be the subject of future analysis and comment. What is predictable, however, is that the significance of education for society will only increase and that government will continue to be challenged by continually having to strike a new balance among the advocates of greater equality, efficiency, and liberty.
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JAMES W. GUTHRIE
- Educational Psychology - History, Contemporary Views of Learning and Motivation, Issues and Controversies
- Educational Leadership - A Challenging Environment, Preparing Recruiting and Sustaining School Leaders, Leadership in the Twenty-First Century