John M. McLaughlin, Ph.D, Director of Research
Murfreesboro Pike, Nashville, Tennessee
(The debate over public education has been heating up lately, especially with the recession and resulting short-falls in public funding as everybody in public education scrambles for decreasing funds. McLaughlin is an administrator for Educational Services of of America (ESA). ESA partners with public school districts by providing services for 240 public school districts around the country with 10,000 students, many with special needs. This is his prediction as to how he thinks public education will evolve as the pressures of changing demographics, economics and omnipresent technology re-make American public schooling. -Lon)
In the early 1990’s, there was an excitement and anticipation that American education was on the precipice of dramatic and rapid change. Market-based ideas were gaining force. The concept of vouchers to provide families with school choice was sprouting. Private enterprise was focusing upon public schools. Education Alternatives, Inc., a publicly traded company in Minneapolis, was stepping into the management of public schools. The freshly launched Edison Project proposed to build a private school group that would become the gold standard of education excellence. Technology was just beginning to show its promise for a new design of education. Change was in the air.
But alas, the hope of that heady era met reality. As vouchers were debated across the country, charter schools emerged as a compromise. Education Alternatives, Inc. was destroyed in a public market debacle. Edison gave up on its idea of private schools and focused on charters. Technology met a status quo that was anything but an early adopter. The change that was in the air blew away like dust from a chalkboard. Public education performance became a top issue of national political debate. Standards defined the day, test scores reigned, and dropout rates soared.
Now, some twenty years later, change is once again in the air. This time, however, school reformers are not the creators. Demographics, economics, and omnipresent technology are forces that are about to re-make American public schooling. This re-casting will have a significant impact on all forms of schooling – public and private. An aging society, fiscal challenges, and technological possibilities are making a potent recipe for change. —
Ever since they were born, members of the Baby Boom Generation have had an unprecedented impact on shaping the American economy. Schools expanded to serve the young Boomers, then colleges and universities, the housing market, the luxury car market, a host of other markets, and soon the retirement home market will accommodate this demographic bubble. As Boomers shift from being Social Security tax payers to Social Security benefit receivers, the effect on the public purse will be palpable. In the early 1990s, more than 50% of every state budget was dedicated to education. Now, in most states, the percentage of money targeted to schools is in the mid-forties. The pressure states have to maintain their infrastructures, and shoulder their portions of public healthcare will only become more severe as roads, sewer systems, airports, public buildings, and citizen’s age. Consequently, education funding will receive less public money in coming years, if not in terms of total dollars, at least in terms of its portion of the public pie.
Further exacerbating the economic challenges, public education is significantly funded by property tax. The devaluation of homes across the nation since 2007 lowers the tax base of support for public schools. East Coast, West Coast, urban, suburban, small town, location doesn’t matter; it’s a rare community that is an exception to this new reality. Most economists forecast that the return of property values to their 2006 levels will take another ten years or so. Boomers downsizing their homes and reorienting to retirement residences has an additional negative effect on property tax collections. Sales tax and special taxes such as those on lotteries and gambling are another source of funding for schools in some states. While the economic condition of the nation is better in 2011 than in was in 2009, factors such as an aging society, the green movement, and a new found appreciation for saving money will hamper the generation of sales and special revenue taxes.
So the economic problems facing public education are serious. What is going to happen? Will schools learn to do with less? Will pupil-teacher ratios go through the roof? This is where the Boomers who are at the peak of their elected power will begin to re-define education and endorse a technology-supported framework that will create a very different schooling in the years to come. Elected officials and state department of education administrators will oversee a metamorphosis of education that will fulfill states’ mandates to provide schooling under an era of fiscal constraint and technological expansion.
Here are some things to expect in the coming years:
- The structure of schooling will change. Five day a week, seven hours a day will fade. Shorter weeks will predominate. Some districts will move to students attending every other day and learning online those days not present in a school building. There are already public school pilot programs where students report to the school building one day a week and are self-schooled, home-schooled, or otherwise responsible for themselves the other four “school days” each week.
- There will be greater differentiation of diplomas in keeping with students pursuing academic versus vocational tracks within secondary schools. This multiple paths structure will support demands from employers and post-secondary schools for high school credentials that are meaningful and consistent.
- The “per pupil” cost of public school will decrease. Technology will support an increasing portion of the curriculum; teachers will morph into resource people, guides, and mentors rather than knowledge providers. Teacher-assisted web-based courses will allow 24/7 access to learning and drive education costs down. Schools will be resource centers. Students will be scheduled, tested, and accountable, but not in attendance 35 hours a week. Credits and matriculation will be based on mastery, not seat-time. Collective bargaining will be under severe pressure from political and fiscal conservatives.
- Voucher programs will be increasingly adopted. Students with special needs around the country will see more voucher opportunities such as those found in Florida and Georgia before the concept gains traction with mainstream students. Cost containment, more so than parental control, will be the rationale that eventually increases voucher programs for the mainstream.
The re-making of American education will be driven by the public sector due to financial exigency. Private and parochial schools, while certainly not unaffected by the economic times, have less pressure to quickly evolve compared to their public school counterparts. If indeed public schools burst forth in coming years with flexible scheduling, multiple learning paths, mastery learning, and meaningful diplomas and certificates, private schools with “traditional” structures may also evolve with the times or may find even greater support by holding to their long-standing models.
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