Born of the Enlightenment during our nation's infancy and formed in the crucible of the Industrial Age, American public education as we have known it since the late 19th century may be nearly unrecognizable in a few years.
Based on an infrastructural factory model and an agrarian calendar, the traditional public education system is being eroded in a rapidly changing environment. Newer competing variants offer today's consumer greater customization and choice compared to the older standardized product that we all remember.
As is often the case with new music and fashion, a California-based trend of parent-trigger charter schools is already moving in our direction. The parent trigger allows conversion of low performing schools into charter schools, based primarily on a simple majority of parents affixing their names to a petition.
This growing array of consumer choices, including traditional charter schools, cyber charter schools and growing voucher programs means that education may vary individually from child to child as widely as their shoes.
The traditional egalitarian public school system that brought all of us together, fostered our ascendency to world leadership and provided a common American experience may be rapidly following in the footsteps of the United States Postal Service.
The notion that families should be able to exercise greater educational choice and direct at least a portion of the public education funding connected to their children has now become a growing movement in many state capitols, as well as Washington, DC.
Though charter schools have not generally exceeded traditional schools' performance, the idea of choice is compelling to many parents. Vouchers fall into that same realm.
Driven by the tyranny of the expedient, public policymakers are attempting to control the growth of educational spending by cutting budgets and offering what they hope will be lower cost family choices.
The nation's huge debt load is placing financial stress on the entire system from pre-kindergarten programs all the way up through our colleges and universities. Funding shortfalls at every level of government mean that each slice of the funding pie is in for careful scrutiny, if not reduction or elimination, and program priorities are being reconsidered everywhere.
Though spending for education has traditionally been sacrosanct, public policy makers and tax payers alike are increasingly questioning the value received for their education dollar.
While the Federal government continues to print money and exert robust control over education policy in the states, they supply only about 10-12 per cent of school budgets.
State and local funding sources constitute the balance, with the proportion varying somewhat among the states.
These revenues are generated mostly through property taxes, various income taxes and sales taxes.
Given our extant financial train wreck and the resultant programmatic triage across most of the country, increased spending on education is simply not in the cards.
The cost curve for the current system is rising more steeply than revenues and in many areas, tax rates are topped out and taxpayers are tapped out.
Public consternation with school performance is on the rise, too. Despite increased spending on schools, student achievement has been generally flat for at least the last 30 years. SAT scores have not risen since the late 1970s, graduation rates are stalled and, in some situations, declining.
About one-third of our high school graduates are functionally illiterate and nearly half require remedial coursework in math and/or writing when they enter two-year of four-year colleges.
Beyond these direct financial challenges, the insidious effect of increasing Federal and/or State taxes serves to siphon off the tax money available to local school districts.
This is especially true since local tax issues are usually the only place where property owners and other taxpayers can actually go to the polls for an up or down vote on a tax issue.
The combined impact of all these factors can very well put public education on much the same pathway as our now-empty factories and heavy industries. Sooner than we think, today's rumblings could grow into an educational earthquake of seismic proportions.
Terry Wallace is a Senior Fellow in the Government Policy Research Center at West Liberty University and a Senior Fellow in the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia in Morgantown, West Virginia.