In an era when everything is customizable, why not customize your child's education?"What about home schooling? You know, it's not just for scary religious people any more." That's a line from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and it should strike fear into the hearts, not of vampires, but of public-school administrators everywhere.
The fact is, Americans across the country -- but especially in large, urban school systems -- are voting with their feet and abandoning traditional public schools, to the point that teachers are facing layoffs. Some are going to charter schools, which are still public but are run more flexibly. Some are leaving for private schools. But many others are going another step beyond traditional education, and switching to online school or even pure home schooling.
And, as Buffy so accurately noted, it's not just "scary religious people." In fact, rather than scary, those religious people are looking more like trendsetters. A recent piece in The Atlantic told of purely secular parents' decision to take their kids out of New York public schools and home school instead:
"That first year, chatting with other homeschooling parents at soccer games, picnics, and after-church coffee hours, I found that our decision was far from unusual. Homeschooling has long been a philosophical choice for religious traditionalists and off-the-grid homesteaders, but for the parents we met — among them several actors, a jazz composer, a restaurateur, a TV chef, a Columbia University physical-plant supervisor, and a handful of college professors — it was a practical alternative to New York's notoriously inadequate education system."
New York's public school system is indeed notoriously inadequate. And, like most public school systems (or public systems of any kind), it's run more for the convenience of the staff and bureaucrats than for the benefit of parents or kids. Some kids do fine anyway, of course, and some parents aren't in a position to pursue alternatives. But for many parents, traditional schooling is no longer the automatic default choice.
That makes sense. Traditional public schools haven't changed much for decades (and to the extent they have, they've mostly gotten worse). But the rest of the world has changed a lot. The public who eagerly purchased Henry Ford's Model T (available in any color you want, so long as it's black!) now lives in a world where almost everything is infinitely customized and customizable. That makes one-size-fits-all education, run on a Fordist model itself, look like a bad deal.
For "notoriously inadequate" public school systems, as I argue in a new "Broadside" from Encounter Books, The K-12 Implosion, the risk is that the outflow of kids will turn from a trickle into a flood. At some point, it's a death-spiral: As kids (often the best students) leave because schools are "notoriously inadequate," the schools become even more notoriously inadequate, and funding -- which is computed on a per-pupil basis -- dries up. This, of course, encourages more parents to move their kids elsewhere, in a vicious cycle.
Does this mean the end of public education? No. But it does mean that the old model -- which dates to the 19th Century, when schools were explicitly compared to factories -- is at risk. Smarter educators will start thinking about how to update a 19th Century product to suit 21st Century realities. Less-smart educators will hunker down and fight change tooth and nail.
Who will win out in the end? Well, how many 19th Century business models do you see flourishing, here in the 21st?
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee. He blogs at InstaPundit.com.