Failing on Purpose
Make Good (School) Choices
An Emergent Educational Order
Thank you for kicking off this conversation. Your three-part framework—libertarian, state control, and pluralism—is a smart way to organize this discussion because it captures the different ways a system of schools can be arranged to accomplish a variety of goals. I’ll adopt those categories and their descriptions in what follows both because I find them compelling and because I want to make the case that America need not choose between them. In fact, I think we can best understand America’s history of K–12 education and its current status by recognizing how we’ve blended aspects of each. Indeed, key moments in the development of U.S. primary and secondary schooling, including the most contentious episodes, occurred when we began emphasizing—sometimes overemphasizing—one of the three categories over the other two.
It is helpful to see that we have three sectors of K–12 schooling, each embodying one of the categories. First is the district sector representing “state control.” It is marked by a single government body (a school board) owning and operating all public schools in a geographic area and assigning kids to schools based on their home addresses. The second is the private sector representing the “libertarian” approach. It includes the various forms of homeschooling and the many private providers, largely unregulated by the state, operating different types of schools enrolled via families’ choices. The third is what I’ll call the “diversified public sector” representing “pluralism.” This includes the collection of schools that are enrolled by parental choice but are operated by or overseen by government bodies. This includes charter schools, contract schools, magnet schools, schools participating in inter- and intra-district choice programs, and various systems (like dual enrollment offerings and part-time online programs) that enable families to partake in multiple offerings inside the public system.
Until about the middle of the 19th century, America followed the libertarian model. There was no public system of schools to speak of. Children often learned to read at home. To the extent that young people were formally educated, it was via private tutors or private schools often affiliated with a church. The “common schools” movement was determined to make education more accessible. Various local and state policies (and eventually state constitutional provisions) were passed to ensure each community had a publicly funded school.
America made a fateful decision during this era. This new sector of common (or public) schools was designed as a collection of geographically based government monopolies. The local school board would be the exclusive provider of public education within its designated area. That is, this movement could have but did not create a public school system marked by multiple providers and family choice. There are a number of reasons why the monopoly route was chosen instead: central government control was thought to provide equal opportunity; it promised to facilitate assimilation during an era of mass immigration; it fit the Progressive Era mindset of uniformity and professionalism; it would be easier to administer; and so on.
While this appears to be an obvious and major win for the “state control” model, this sector was initially marked by very small school districts (often with just one school), and these districts had significant autonomy and were democratically governed. As a result, districts and schools were quite different from one another, thanks to the different views, traditions, and priorities of America’s diverse population. Here we can start to see the outlines of a pluralistic or diversified public sector.
While the expansion of the district sector—combined with compulsory education laws—led to more and more children receiving primary (and eventually secondary) education, its shortcomings became clearer as time passed. Monopolies, especially government monopolies, tend toward growth, technocracy, and greater centralization. Indeed, in the name of efficiency, small school districts were consolidated. Over decades, America saw the number of districts plummet from over 100,000 to closer to 10,000. Bigger districts meant less variation, less community control, and a greater reliance on central administrators with “expertise.” Often districts were used to advance majoritarian thinking. Some districts taught material deemed offensive by immigrant families; several states tried to force—through law—all students to attend public schools.
The backlash to such forced uniformity and consolidation of power led to pitched political battles in some cities as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1925 ruling that states could not force children to receive schooling only from public officials. As importantly, it led to the creation of thousands of private schools: Frustrated by the district system, citizens and community institutions developed schools of their own. Although the growth of Catholic education was most prominent (expanding from a few hundred schools in the second half of the 19th century to more than 13,000 by the 1960s), a wide array of private schools—Lutheran schools, Jewish day schools, secular schools, and more—emerged.
Viewed through the lens of conflict, we might say the revolution of the state-control model produced a counterrevolution in favor of the libertarian model. But it’s equally fair to say that America, without a central plan, was slowly incorporating characteristics of both models into a broader system. That is, America was organically evolving an approach to K–12 education that recognized the virtues of both a public system (e.g., scale, opportunity, communitarianism, and democratic control) and a system of variety and choice (e.g., diversification of options, parental authority, pluralism, and limited government power).
During the 20th century, school districts continued to get larger, putting more distance between families and central administrators. At the same time, a growing body of evidence showed that American students’ academic achievement had generally stagnated and that many large urban school systems were staggeringly lower-performing. Part of the national response was directed at the state-control sector. “Accountability” systems based on tough academic standards, assessments to measure student performance, and interventions to address deficiencies, became ubiquitous. There was a libertarian strand of reform as well. More attention was paid to homeschooling and a growing number of states passed school choice programs that enabled families to pay for non-public schools.
But an approach aligned with your pluralism model also emerged. More and more, families gained access to educational options that were operated or overseen by the government. Intra- and inter-district choice laws allowed families to select a district-run school other than the one to which their children would be assigned. A variety of career and technical education schools and magnet schools (whether run by a district, state, county, or other government body) provided access to specialized programs. Charter and contract schools were run by non-government bodies but held accountable by the district or another state-approved entity. Public schools also established relationships with higher education institutions, online providers, and various other programs to enable students enrolled in traditional public schools to take part in offerings operated by other entities. Lastly, some states subjected private schools participating in choice programs to state accountability systems.
In total, then, today we have a K–12 system that incorporates elements of the state control, libertarian, and pluralist models. Many students attend district-assigned public schools. Many students attend choice-based schools subject to varying levels of government accountability. Many students attend private or homeschools that operate largely free of government regulation. Interestingly, some of the most important innovations during the COVID era demonstrate the porous barriers between the three models. Pods and hybrid homeschooling enable students to be enrolled in a public school but engage in more private small learning communities part of the time. Micro-schools are typically private—but can be part of a charter or district school—and often feel like a large homeschool. Part-time online programs can enable a homeschooled student to be part of a larger learning community or a traditionally schooled student to learn at home from time to time. Hubs are locations that provide a supervised environment for students to gather even if they are enrolled in different programs.
The point of all of this is that America has evolved itself into a complex system of primary and secondary education. Though it might seem unintelligible to an outside observer, that’s not the same thing as being unintelligent. In fact, your framework helps us see that what America has been up to for generations is rather straightforward: finding ways to make the most of the best aspects of the three different models. Today’s system of schools has elements of communitarianism, democratic control, choice, public accountability, pluralism, innovation, and freedom.
Ashley, if you generally agree that the district sector is akin to the “state control” model and the private sector is akin to the “libertarian” model, I wonder what you make of my argument that they contribute to the system as a whole. In other words, would you like to see both reformed so they function more like the “pluralist” model? For instance, would you like to see traditional public school boards cease operating schools and instead contract with a variety of nonprofit providers to run schools (like the evolution of New Orleans’ system or what Hill and Jochim argue here)? Would you prefer if all private schools (or perhaps just private schools that receive funding via public programs) are incorporated into public accountability systems?