School reseeding into a vortex of books Illustration: Eben Kowler, Photo: Pixabay

Unbundling Public School: Possibilities & Pitfalls

I was surprised to read this stat from the 2021 House of Representatives State Fair Poll:

  • Should a school voucher system be established whereby the state issues parents a voucher equal to the state’s cost of educating a child for a year, and parents can then choose the school their child attends, whether public or private?

    • Yes — 46.2% (2,367)
    • No — 40% (2,049)
    • Undecided/No opinion — 13.8% (709)

I remember this issue being hot, hot, hot when I was in middle school. Maybe it is on the horizon again because, in 2019, Minnesota ranked 50th when it came to racial disparities in high school graduation rates. Whether you are yes, no, or undecided, I hope you agree that business-as-usual isn’t working.

What might the future of education vouchers in Minnesota look like?

I went to public school, I think they are important. I believe that all children deserve a good education. But, we have to acknowledge that the current model isn’t working.

In January 2021, the Minneapolis Fed published an article pointing out that Native American children and children of color, education disparities start early and persist for the longterm. Their conclusion was that effective strategies to eliminate these disparities must place race at the center. After a summer of hysteria over Critical Race Theory, that kind of policy-making seems unlikely.

Could a voucher-based system offer a path around this institutional paralysis? Adults are free to choose from a menu of learning modalities: online, boot-camp, trade school, grad school. Is there a future where vouchers launch a needed round of innovation in our schools?

Possibilities: Personalized Pedagogy

What could this future of learning look like?

Micro-schools: Families with a share interest team up to pool their resources to pay a private teacher or team of teachers to provide personal instruction to their kids. That teacher could even be a parent! During the 2020 school year, some Black families and communities took this approach and their students thrived.

Learn-to-Hire: As the population ages, good help gets harder to find. Companies or industry associations could set up programs to train the workers they need, perhaps partnering with a non-profit to provide trust and credibility with BIPOC and Native American families. One example of this model ia Revé Academy in Minneapolis where high school students learn digital technology skills and get hands-on experience working with real clients.

Spotify Tutor: Knowledge is already on-demand. You can learn almost anything from the internet with passion and dedication. Imagine an AI tutor or coach in subjects like math and science that can work with students at their own pace. Something like Kahn Academy plus IBM Watson.

Pitfalls: A History of Inequality

This is dangerous territory. Access to equal education is one of the central battles of the American Civil Rights Movement. Any reallocation of public education resources has to be done with that legacy in mind — ensuring access to equal education is not just maintained but advanced.

Success to the Successful: The biggest risk is that by creating an explicit market for public K-12 education, those with resources will leverage them to get the best teachers, the best everything for their students. Instead of closing the gap, it will become a canyon. At a restrained level, this is public-private-charter system we already have. Those with resources use them to help their children.

Any transition to a voucher-based system should not come at the expense of maintaining a robust public option. Rigorous quality control and evaluation of substitutes for traditional K-12 options will be essential.

But, if we proceed with caution and have policy guardrails in place — maybe a voucher system could help all students flourish as new learning institutions take root.

September 14, 2021 Learning School

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