Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Public schools are dead, long live public education?

Keeping a charter school running means constantly responding to change without the infrastructure, finances, and administrative depth of district schools. Lose an English teacher in a district high school, and there are others who can step in.  Lose one in a charter school and you have no such backup.  Enrollment drops by a few students in a high school of 3,000 and it is barely noticeable.  Lose a few students in a school of 250 and you are in budget difficulty.

So when the Utah legislature passed a law last session requiring all public schools to allow students to enroll in online courses offered by preferred providers, and stipulated that portions of the weighted pupil unit (the per-student state funding) go to those providers, there was little outcry.  But for a charter school like City Academy, the prospect of a few thousand dollars leaving our budget every time a student chooses an online course is troubling, because it makes it more difficult for us to pay for the teachers, building, and resources needed to support the student when he or she is in class.

I will leave it to others to determine whether this law is good or bad.  I expect that it is morally neutral, and may provide opportunities for innovation in public education.  But the thing that has gone unremarked is this: that this move, more than anything that has happened in the past ten years, is likely to weaken public schools even while it may strengthen public education.

Here is what I mean: allowing state funding to follow student class selection creates a revenue stream for providers of classes, not diplomas.  Thus a future is possible where a student takes a math class from one provider, a history class from another, and a science class from a third.  The experience of school disappears; all that remains is taxpayer supported coursework, made whole, if at all, by parents, advisors, and students themselves.

 Public schools may be on the way out; we will have to decide whether the public education that replaces it is what we desire.

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