The New Frontier of education freedom

“Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier. But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment; for the problems are not all solved, and the battles are not all won; and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier … ” – President John F. Kennedy

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”   – Winston Churchill

Those of us who believe in pluralism, diversity and variety in K-12 education have been thrilled since word leaked that Arizona choice opponents failed in their effort to kill the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account Program expansion.

It’s now official: We have a choice program available to all school age children. This is a great achievement. We should celebrate and face future challenges with growing strength and enthusiasm.

Arizona’s program, and others like it perhaps to soon follow, are the next rather than the final milestone. The new frontier of the choice movement dawns on the horizon and will require still more sacrifice and toil to achieve.

That proposition: voluntary association and exchange should become a core principle of public education by putting all K-12 funding into parent directed accounts.

Much remains to debate and decide about such a system. How much extra funding should be given to different sorts of students? We’ve been using state K-12 funding formula weights as a default, but they aren’t stone tablets brought down from Mount Sinai.

What sort of supportive infrastructure in terms of information about service providers and navigation for parents should exist? What sort of technologies and practices are necessary to operate at truly universal scale?

I have opinions on these questions, but I don’t have answers. We are in the early stages of learning by doing in account-based education, which has been going on for barely over a decade at a small but growing scale. It will take toil, sweat, tears, and time to learn what we need to know.

Nevertheless, attendance boundaries and school assignment by default deserve a place in the dustbin of history right alongside other terrible practices of the past such as segregating schools by race and denying children with disabilities access to public schools.

With a great deal of hard work, future Americans may learn of all of these things, wince in disbelief, and ask their elders how it was possible that any of these horrible practices actually existed.

Purchased privilege reigns over our current K-12 system with an iron fist. Advantaged families buy homes zoned for high performing schools. They pay higher school taxes than most anyone in the world. They spend thousands of dollars annually on enrichment activities – tutors, camps, private lessons, college entrance exam test preparation, club sports and more.

Their reward for all of this investment: avoiding catastrophe but losing to Estonia on average.

A much grimmer prospect awaits American families who cannot afford hundreds of thousands in mortgage debt and thousands in annual enrichment spending. Locked out of high demand districts, unable to afford private school tuition, the failed promise of American public education has contributed to generational cycles of poverty.

Sen. John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech in securing the Democratic nomination contains additional instruction for us today:

“We are not here to curse the darkness. We are here to light a candle. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago, ‘If we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.’ Today our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.”

Those words, spoken in 1960, roar into the present. The old ways in American K-12 education will not do. We indeed are in danger of losing the future. We cannot afford to mass produce illiteracy, innumeracy, and civic ignorance.

The future of American education must be pluralistic, diverse, and varied. We cannot afford to diminish potential by segregating with lines. Public funding is guaranteed in state constitutions, but there is no reason to structure the enterprise to rob families of agency and dignity.

It’s still early yet. Much work remains undone, many battles lie ahead. Nevertheless, the day is coming when our K-12 policies will respect the dignity of families to exercise autonomy in schooling. When that day comes, we will set the education default at families exercising their rights as free people.

For decades, we have claimed that minds are a terrible thing to waste. It is long past time to have our actions match our words. The edge of a new frontier of liberty lies within the reach of this generation.

We’ve all cursed the darkness long enough. Let us turn and light a torch of liberty.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.