Education: Unleash free-market power

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At the end of the last century, something remarkable happened. The internet simultaneously exponentially increased the availability of knowledge and reduced the cost of acquisition to near zero.

Today, most people are cybernetic hybrids or cybrids. They carry with them, at all times, technology that allows them to access virtually all human knowledge, to directly and instantaneously communicate with over 5 billion other cybrids, to navigate to any destination, to purchase any product, to be entertained, and to create. Not having the technology in hand causes anxiety and a feeling of being “disconnected.” Loss of the technology causes actual feelings of grief.

Our 17th century “slips of paper carried on ships” school system was never designed to deal with this technology and the rapid change that comes with it. In many cases the first reaction was to ban technologies’ use in schools; to banish the information of choice and replace it with the information required by the standards.

When you honestly consider the magnitude of the change the information age has wrought, the question is not why the public school system is failing; the question is why it hasn’t collapsed completely.

The answer is that people are social animals. We seek interaction with others and desire status among our peers. We are most comfortable doing what others around us are doing. If our peers are attending to the rituals of schooling, then we want to addend to them as well.

Online education fails at this aspect, for now. The only technological hurdle is the fidelity of telepresence; the ability to interact with a remote environment. Once the fidelity of telepresence reaches a certain threshold, the technology becomes transparent and the person is “in” the experience. The threshold is different for different people and experiences, but even today some gamers become “locked in” the game.

Imagine you are interested in a particular thing and for a small fee can take a class from the world’s expert on that particular thing. Imagine your child taking a class in algebra, not from the local high school but from the best algebra teacher in the country. Imagine a special needs student receiving one-on-one tutoring in real time and tailored to their specific abilities.

Impossible, you say? OK, now imagine it’s 1975 and you are telling your friend that in their lifetime, every person would have a telephone that could call anyone anywhere, a television with every station, a jukebox with every song, a movie theater with every movie, a navigation system with every map and a “You are Here” arrow, a library with every book, a teletype that is connected directly to everyone, a color camera that takes movies and stills without film, a videophone, the ability to order anything from any store and have it the next day, and a flashlight, and that all these things would fit in your pocket. Oh, and there are no wires. Of course they would say “impossible” and yet, here we are.

“A system of free public schools” does not mean ONLY brick and mortar schools with regimented curricula. We must realize that our 17th century school system is just one of many system choices now available.

Our public school system is failing at its primary mission because like Kodak, Sears and other institutions, technology is making it obsolete. Our public schools are designed to create uniformity and sameness but our society now values innovation and creativity. It’s time to unleash that creativity and allow it to transform education. We need to be smart, willing to explore new systems and new choices. There are small examples all around us and new ones yet undiscovered if we are open to new possibilities. There is not just one answer, but many.

The easiest first step is to simply allow a portion of the money the state spends on a student to follow that student. Let the students, parents, and educators use the free market to explore other systems. Let the goal be excellence and not just compliance to artificial standards.

That magic box in your pocket is proof that free market choice works unbelievably well. Let’s use it.


Brent Regan is a Coeur d’Alene resident.

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