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‘Tipping point’ reached in education (Scripps Howard News Service) July 16, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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From the world of epidemics and diseases comes a term of hope for American education: “the tipping point.”

In his book of that title, Malcolm Gladwell describes how major social changes follow the path of epidemics. Small changes have little or no effect on a system until critical mass is reached and then, watch out, because a further small change “tips” the system and a huge impact occurs. Gladwell cleverly traces a variety of tipping points, from diseases to hush puppy shoes to crime waves.

The recent Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of school vouchers is important in its own right but, when piled on top of several other notable changes, the whole school choice movement may be approaching its tipping point.

When that moment comes, not only will families across America understand that their children have real choices about education, but public schools will also recognize that they face the reality of market competition. Choice and competition will profoundly improve education for all our children.

Consider the several changes in educational choice and competition that appear to be reaching critical mass:

Home schooling is the fastest growing segment in education. The United States Census Bureau reports that between 1.6 and 2.0 million children are now home schooled and predicts that number will grow by 15 to 20 percent per year. Rapid advances in educational technology make home schooling ever more viable, and the students who are arriving in college from home schools perform extraordinarily well.

Private schools have been making rapid advances, recently taking over one-fourth of the troubled Philadelphia school system. In Michigan, 40 private companies now manage about three-fourths of the state’s 180 charter schools. Edison Schools, Inc. now runs 136 schools in 22 states and believes it is approaching a critical mass for profitability.

Charter schools are springing up everywhere, it seems, giving public school students more choices. In the 2000-2001 school year, there were 2,400 charter schools, in some cities educating as much as 15 to 20 percent of the student population. A recent study also indicates that charter schools provide a more diverse student body than do regular public schools.

Religious schools of all kinds are an important segment of the educational market, providing yet another flavor of educational choice. Catholic schools have become an option for some public school students. The evangelical Association of Christian Schools International now has 5,000 schools and is still growing. Dr. James Dobson, the influential leader of Focus on the Family, said earlier this year that he would not put his own children in California public schools, which is expected to influence many families.

Public school accountability systems have begun to provide yet another form of school choice. In California, students from underperforming schools now must be given the option of attending a different public school, with their old school obligated to pay the costs of transportation. It is not clear whether this will result in major shifts in student population, but it certainly has the attention of officials in the underperforming schools.

Academic studies of early experiments with choice validate its effectiveness. From studies by scholars at the more conservative Hoover Institution, to those published by the more liberal Brookings Institution, the early evidence is that choice improves academic quality and achievement. One interesting report indicates that in areas where there is choice, and therefore competition, there is also stronger performance within the public schools themselves.

As evidence mounts in favor of educational choice, both the White House and the Supreme Court have now weighed in on the matter. First, President Bush strongly favors educational choice, and included $50 million for trial school choice programs in his budget proposal. And now, the Supreme Court, in its landmark ruling in Simmons-Harris v. Zelman, has upheld free markets is only now discovering that they work in education. To borrow a market term, monopolies do not generally serve the public good, and public education’s monopoly on teaching our children appears to be coming to an end. Mark down 2002, with many “small changes” reaching critical mass, as a tipping point for educational choice and competition, and the beginning of an era of improved education for America’s children.

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