Two of the fastest growing sectors in K-12 education are public charter schools and home-based education. Why are they the fastest growing sectors? I suspect that there are many factors that come into play. However, I propose one important perspective that continues to grow in society, and that definitely speaks to the growth in these two areas.
In a presentation several years ago, I was listening to author and independent school administrator Gene Frost speak about the changing motives behind parent’s decisions about schools. In the past, he noted, most parents chose schools for their children on the basis of “identity.” In other words, they attended the school with which they identified the most. You send your kids to the local community public school because you went there as a kid or because you played football there. You send your kids to the Catholic school because you identify with the Catholic faith. You send your kids to the elite private school because you identify with their vision for high academic standards. Notice that the identity decision is not necessarily based upon the quality or effectiveness of the school experience as much as what it represents. If the student has some teachers who are not great, that can be a frustration for the parents who make an identity decision, but it is less likely that they will move their child to a different school based upon it.
Frost noted that fewer people are making “identity” decisions about school. Now they are making “value” decisions. The value question is very different. The identity question is basically, “With which school do I most identify?” The value question is, “Which school or experience will best meet the needs of my child(ren)?” In fact, we see a growing number of parents who are choosing different school experiences for each child, depending upon what seems to be the best fit. Parents may take into account a variety of factors, but this is much more like the decision that one makes when they are shopping for a large and important object or service. With this comes parents who expect that their children’s educational (and potentially other) needs are met consistently and with the quality that they want. If not, then there is a good chance that they will move to another option. Choice and the expectation that schools serve their children well will continue to dominate in a world of “value” decisions. Schools driven by the desires and preferences of administrators, teachers, school boards, unions and other stakeholders diminish in such a world…unless those preferences happen to align with the values of a large enough group of parents and students.
Given this continued shift, schools that lean more generally on their “identity” to draw students will most likely decline in towns where there are multiple options, and the number of options continue to increase. Between traditional public, independent, and public charters; I estimate that there are close to 50 school options for my children within five miles of their home, and I don’t live in the middle of a metropolitan area. This means that more parents will shop for the best school and then expect the type of responsiveness and customer service that they get from a quality purchase.
Why is it that home-based education and charter enrollments continue to increase? I contend that it is because a growing number of parents have new power and influence in contemporary education, and they don’t have to settle for one item on the shelf at the local school district. As parents are increasingly aware of the new and varied options / possibilities, they are asking, “What educational experience(s) are most valuable for my child(ren)?