When the School Doors Close: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
When the School Doors Close:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by Linda Dobson
Society faces a controversy over the comparative merits of public schools and school choice for education of children. But this controversy is diverting important energy, time, and money of parents, educators, politicians, reporters, and policy makers from the real issue. The real issue is the difference between an educational free market and the monopoly system that currently exists.
To be truly realistic, we can’t really compare educational choice to educational monopoly. The monopoly approach has had a long time in the spotlight. The monopoly approach has been subjected to a long train of adaptations which, judging by the results measured in myriad ways, are not working. But choice – true choice – is still a largely untried dream. True choice would provide us a fresh start, one teeming with adaptive potential. So to imagine the school doors shut and locked, I think we have to start by expanding our thinking beyond the prevailing monopoly model that has shaped most of our ideas about education. We can really let our imaginations soar if we allow our thinking to move beyond the monopoly model toward a free market model.
What If Education Suddenly Became Your Responsibility?
As a homeschooling mom, I’ve been fortunate to grow into the freedom and self-responsibility of true educational choice at a pace comfortable for me, but this wouldn’t be the case if the doors suddenly closed on the forty-six million children whose parents are used to putting them on a bus in the morning. Parents who have been used to all-day childcare facilities would panic. I can picture neighborhood grandmas and grandpas pressed into service, and other grandmas and grandpas scurrying onto airplanes for an extended visit with the grandkids. Meanwhile, communities would have to respond with many and varied alternatives quickly and efficiently. (The recruited grandparents would demand it.) Mrs. Jones decides she would love to teach creative writing to about a half dozen neighborhood kids a couple of mornings each week. Mr. Barry would welcome the chance to share his eyewitness accounts of World War II. Mr. Madden sees an opportunity to supplement his Social Security check, so he dusts off his accounting books, brushes up a bit, and places a classified ad in the local newspaper. (Hey, what do you know; a few adults are interested, too. No problem – Mr. Madden will hold a class at night.)
See also “Top 10 Gems: What I Wish Someone Would Have Told Me During My First Year of Homeschooling.”
Still other individuals recognize a business opportunity when they see one. A group of now unemployed teachers rents that empty storefront right downtown (how convenient!), and offers up the classic curriculum they would have loved to teach in government schools if only they had been able to decide what they could teach – well, now they can. Another entrepreneur, whose large factory building has been sitting empty since the door company left eleven years ago, decides to invest and hires local contractors to bring the building up to code, partition off rooms on two floors, smooth the third story floor to a glass finish, and sound-proof a large portion of the basement for a music studio soon to be the envy of the neighborhood. This entrepreneur doesn’t want to get involved in administering his new learning center, so rather than creating a “school” based on the monopoly model, he instead recoups his investment by renting the rooms and studios to those who would like to offer learning opportunities there. He needs only to hire one full-time secretary to keep ads running, answer correspondence and the phone, and keep track of the master schedule.
Mr. Madden’s accounting class has become so popular he rents a room at the learning center for two afternoons and two evenings each week. His class meets right next door to the senior citizen club’s daily arts and crafts offerings, where children young and old gather to learn everything from how to make jam to quilting to basket-making. Across the hall from Mr. Madden is the classroom for the gardening group, but they spend most of their time outside getting hands-on experience in the ever-expanding garden they’ve created right behind the ex-factory. The carpentry class is building a potting shed, and the folks learning about solar energy will soon start work on a state-of-the-art greenhouse. If you look around your neighborhood, and think about the past and present learning your neighbors have under their belts, you’ll realize that the possibilities here are endless.
Now we’ve got citizens scurrying all around town each day. Instead of allowing all those school busses to rot in the garage, a few local taxi companies decide to buy some of them. They hire drivers to drive back and forth through town all day long, shuttling learners to the locations of choice. Any learner who needs one, no matter what age, can purchase a reasonably priced monthly pass for the shuttle service. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce hasn’t been idle. (Members have kids who need learning opportunities, too.) The Chamber calls an emergency meeting of all the local business owners and they debate and discuss how they can help. Some members bemoan this catastrophe and express fears about gangs of kids with nothing to do hanging around in front of their stores, scaring away customers. But other members realize that crisis, viewed with the proper perspective, creates opportunity, and they issue compelling arguments to establish a community-wide apprenticeship database. After all, some of the businesses are already hurting because a sizable number of employees, both male and female, have either quit or drastically cut back their hours to homeschool their children. Apprenticeships would not only help educate the children, they would provide useful, interesting things for the “hang arounds” to do. The Chamber of Commerce puts the database on the Internet, so it’s accessible to families at home, and it convinces the local paper to start a new classified heading in the newspaper so all the townspeople can learn about new opportunities as soon as they open up. The Historical Society and the Nature Center just keep doing what they’ve always done. The only difference now is that more people start taking advantage of their offerings, and they have to put out a call for more volunteers to help. The requests are added to the Chamber of Commerce’s database of apprenticeships.
Libraries for Education
Then there are all of our libraries, ready-made learning centers that would grow and prosper under the “no government school” educational model. People already come and go at will, whenever they find it necessary, all day long. They use computers to access information; they sit and read for a spell; they have meetings or classes or guest speakers; they pick up a video tape to watch that evening; they participate in or patronize art shows and craft sales, exhibits, and instruction. Libraries provide a guide to a new educational model because they just may be the last bastions of free inquiry we have left.
And what about all those new homeschoolers? Established local support groups are having weekly meetings to meet the demand (they rented a room one night a week at the learning center for this purpose), printing up recommended reading and resource lists, and generally knocking themselves out answering questions about phonics vs. whole language, Saxon math drills vs. new-new math, and how to turn your kitchen into a science laboratory. The questions are flying because these new homeschooling parents are getting an education themselves. Even though a child was getting A’s in school, Mom is appalled that her son’s reading skills are at least a couple of grade levels behind. Dad, who graciously volunteered to take on the duty of teaching algebra to his high school daughter at night, discovers that she doesn’t have a firm grasp on the fundamentals necessary to approach the topic of algebra. He’ll have to backtrack, and he realizes this is going to take more time than he originally thought.
Now that they’re under pressure, more parents than ever before are realizing they already own one of the most powerful learning tools in existence – a personal computer sitting right there in the corner of the living room. I haven’t tried it myself (I love books too much!), but I’m willing to bet that a family with a computer and Internet access could begin to homeschool for the cost of nothing more than the fee of an Internet server. Do an Internet search today, and you’ll find everything from the text of the Constitution to a tour of the Louvre to NASA’s home page to science experiments to a homeschool approach to obtain Scout badges to on-line writing courses to connection to a complete, ready-made curriculum. After a few months or a year of approaching education this way, families will begin to realize that lots of other “non-schooly” stuff on the Internet is just as educational as the classes offered in the neighborhood.
There are Usenet groups, e-mail groups, and chat pages devoted to every topic imaginable. When my son was having trouble creating his home page, he simply found a chat room where such things were discussed. He put his questions out into the electronic ether and knowledgeable folks gave him the tips he needed – within minutes. Does your son like to play chess more frequently than you can handle? There’s a site where he can instantly find a challenger while the program keeps track of hi win/loss record and ranks him along with the other players, too. Does your daughter want to discuss early American history with folks who share her passion? They’re out there, discussing it every day.
Schools for Education Are Obsolete
To realize this dream, we need to examine and take better control of the funds that support the status quo. What I’m trying to say is that before we put umpteen billions of tax payers’ dollars into repairing the crumbling brick edifices known as schools believing that, as we’ve been told, this will somehow help “education,” let’s consider an important fact: Today – right now – school buildings are obsolete!
Our national education budget already contains, from all sources, an estimated $1 billion a day. Using this estimate, we can divvy that up between 365,000 learning centers operating on a $1 million per year budget. That works out to about one learning center for every 685 American men, women, and children. This may sound like chump change compared to the monopoly model budgets, but $1 million goes a long way where administration stays minimal, volunteers contribute, and materials are shared a la the interlibrary loan systems.
A cozier atmosphere could be created if we set our sights on 730,000 centers spending $.5 million each year. With a more definitive community aura at this level, local businesses would find it in their best interest to donate human and financial resources, and offer apprenticeships to area residents. As things stand now, according to a 1990 survey of 200 major U.S. corporations, 22% teach reading, 41% teach writing, and 31% teach computation to their employees. An equivalent financial contribution to the neighborhood learning center wouldn’t cost an additional dime, and would create an honest-to-goodness, win-win situation for all involved.
“Free Public Education” Is Not Free, Public Or Education
Now that we have an idea of what an educational free market can look like and accomplish, let’s return to the change in thinking required to make it happen. It helps a lot to think about the true meaning of three little words – free public education. Instead of viewing education as something we do to and/or for our youth, always with an eye on the nation’s economic future instead of the children’s educational present, we can return to its original meaning, “to bring out that which is within.” When this definition guides our thinking – if we begin from this starting point instead of the “pour knowledge into the kids, let them regurgitate it” starting point – our educational methods will truly change. We can’t control that which is within individuals, we can only nurture it.
On to the term “free”. Only one change necessary here; take the compulsion out of school attendance; “free” the kids. How can our children possibly find independence and decision-making comfortable or worthwhile if, from the age of five and, many times, younger, they are herded by legal and cultural force to endure conditions that, at least at the younger ages, go against their very natures, abilities, and capacities? If we start from the idea of “freedom to learn” instead of “compulsory attendance”, those learners who guide their own journeys and choose the means by which they travel will recognize their vested interest in the outcome.
Last, we look at the word “public”, which carries with it our current notion of public school as America’s great equalizer, the opportunity for all to have a crack at the American Dream, usually expressed in increased ability to purchase things. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, though, gives five definitions for public, all of which hold potential for a broader perspective on the term, and lead us to a different use of our one billion dollars per day:
Of, concerning, or affecting the community or the people
Maintained for or used by the people or community
Participated in or attended by the people or community
Connected with or acting on behalf of the people, community, or government, rather than private matters or interests
Open to the knowledge or judgment of all
Free Market Approach to Education Is the Last Chance
Why are “public” schools forced on everyone ages five to eighteen and denied to everyone else? If we truly understand the importance of education, if we truly want an educated populace, if we truly want children (and adults) to appreciate the joys and benefits of education, what we now call public schools should in fact be community learning centers, open to everyone who wants to partake of knowledge – or share it. And what a great way to get around the drive toward School-to-Work, where your children are educated, not as the unique individuals they are, but to be compliant, faithful employees trained for narrow job descriptions instead of for a lifetime of clear thinking. The current move toward creating huge databases filled with myriad pieces of information on your children – from their scores on school-administered “belief surveys” to attendance, grades, health, and juvenile justice records – would be thwarted with the free market approach, too. In fact, this may be “the people’s” last effective way to protect the vestiges of a disappearing right to freedom and privacy that remain.
Believe it or not, families don’t need schools or government to act as intermediary between parents and children. “We, the people,” can take care of our own educational needs. All it takes is the willingness to expand our thinking, the knowledge that we can capably assume the responsibility we now unthinkingly turn over to others, and the will to make a dream of something better come true.