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Let’s Take a Smart Ride into a Dynamic Educational Future

My vision of Colorado’s educational future certainly looks humble and limited, though let’s be honest, it isn’t ridiculous. Personally I’m a bigger fan of Transformers, but for some the “future” conjures up pictures of a kind of Star Trek sci-fi world. Maybe not enough to convince them to speak exclusively to their own children in the Klingon language.

Or at least, if they do opt for that road less taken, they ought to think twice about running for school board. If for no other reason, prominent education reform thinkers like Checker Finn long have been speculating about the democratic school board model going the way of the horse and buggy. (An unfuturistic futurist?)

Now, writing for the think tank Finn ran until recently, the insightful Andy Smarick takes on the theme again. He writes for the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog about the “obvious problems” with the “unitary system,” in which school districts having control over all public schools in a geographic area.

Smarick is engaging with the main arguments in American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael McShane’s new book Education and Opportunity. McShane appears to have a harsh assessment of this current system as an obstacle to his larger call for a somewhat different approach to education reform.

That vision is captured in a sentence from his book that Smarick correctly highlights:

“A vibrant marketplace of education options is the most effective means of developing the schools necessary to meet the needs of students today and in the years to come.”

The sort of dynamic education marketplace embraced by McShane seems far off. (It also seems very intriguing. Perhaps I need to get a copy of his book.) You know what I mean, in the “future.” Where interplanetary travel is common, domestic robots make our lives that much easier, and we are surrounded by the everyday reality of self-driving cars.

Wait, maybe that’s not so far off! In one of the more unorthodox but eye-opening arguments in this world of education reform — where arguments and ideas are often recycled and refuted in daily sound bytes — the Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick instead speculates how the advent of self-driving cars could help to expand school choice.

Bedrick cites a 2009 Center on Reinventing Public Education study that found “transportation difficulties” kept significant numbers of low-income families in Denver, of all places, from enrolling students in the school they want:

Fortunately, there is a technological innovation with the potential to make transportation safer, faster, and more affordable while solving numerous logistical challenges: self-driving cars.

Citing a Wall Street Journal piece, Bedrick notes that fully autonomous vehicles on American roads appears to be only five to 10 years away (how old will I be then?). Now that’s cool! Taken together with a number of other important factors, including policy changes to regulations and funding formulas, the existence of this futuristic technology very well could help to fuel McShane’s vision of a dynamic education marketplace.

While this little kid is ready to dive into the future headfirst, Smarick leaves us with a valuable caution:

I believe it’s time to have a conversation about which aspects of public schooling need to be preserved and which need to be overhauled. Indeed, if you consider today’s fights over Common Core, common assessments, tenure, teacher evaluation, and more, you see they boil down to this basic question: Do we preserve or reform?

Though I remain a zealot for choice, diversity in educational options, and smart markets, I’m mindful of the many ripples attended by change.

Okay then. Let’s keep pressing forward. But let’s also remember to be thoughtful about how we do so. Just don’t forget I might be getting older.