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Our Opinion: Changes in public education complicate pressing choices

June 17, 2015 at 12:00 p.m. | Updated June 17, 2015 at 12:00 p.m.

Public education is changing; that's common knowledge.

The question is whether changes - driven by technology, parents and advocates of student-centered learning - will outpace public education's ability to adapt.

We don't mean to be alarmist, but change that is too much, too soon could dilute funding and resources now directed to public education.

Parents tend to be more concerned about the specific quality of their children's education than they are about public education in general. Parents care about school safety and discipline (preventing bullying, etc.) and are showing greater interest in alternatives, including private schools, charter schools and home-schooling.

But other options are gaining momentum, including education savings account, virtual schools and year-round schools.

Parents and patrons who support alternatives must remember that public education, in whatever form, will require taxpayer funding. And, depending on the form, a whole lot more taxpayer funding may be required.

Let's look at some alternatives:

Education savings accounts, or ESAs: "Building student-centered education," elsewhere on this page, is an op-ed authored by Lindsey M. Burke of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

She wrote: "Instead of assigning students to the nearest brick-and-mortar public school, regardless of whether it meets their needs or is underperforming, Nevada now enables families to instead have their child's share of state education dollars deposited into a parent-controlled savings account."

Burke added: "This card can be used to pay for any education-related service, product or provider. That includes private school tuition, individual courses at public schools and public charter schools, private tutors, online learning classes, curricula, textbooks, dual enrollment college courses, and a host of other education-related services and products. Parents can even roll-over unused funds from year-to-year."

Such an educational buffet indeed is student-centered, but it requires harmony among a number of working parts, including: a motivated student, an involved parent, means of transportation, and availability and affordability of educational choices, including profit-making operations.

Virtual schools: "When the Internet is the teacher," also on this page, is an op-ed English teacher Michael Godsey wrote for the Los Angeles Times.

Godsey describes an alternative called AltSchool, a network of K-8 private schools where every student "has a laptop or a tablet, and they spend about 30 percent of their day on their devices, completing what are called playlists."

The virtual alternative is based on the proposition that traditional schools are obsolete, and the teacher should move from being a "sage on the stage" to being "a guide on the side."

Godsey added, however: "But the most troubling aspect of this trend in education is the lack of evidence showing that repurposing the teacher as a "guide on the side' actually improves learning."

He cited a book by John Hattie, who found ""teacher credibility,' "direct instruction,' and "quality of teaching' were all significantly more effective than "individualized instruction,' "matching teaching with learning style,' and "computer-assisted instruction.'"

Year-round education: Some developments in education are not an alternative to traditional education, but an expansion of it.

A news story this week reported on a suburban Kansas City school district that has started a pair of year-round elementary schools as an experiment.

The experiment comes with added costs in salaries and services, but is proving popular with parents.

These and other developments in, and alternatives to, public education pose a challenge - for school boards, administrators, teachers, parents, patrons and students.

The challenge is intensified in districts like ours where pressing facilities decisions do not allow the luxury of waiting to see how these possibilities are sorted out.

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