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Originally published Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Let’s get rid of compulsory school days

Abolishing compulsory school attendance in our state could unleash a wave of creative and innovative education programs, writes guest columnist Jim Strickland.

Special to The Times

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LET’S face it — despite all the impassioned rhetoric, charter schools are not likely to either save or destroy public education as we know it in our state, especially given the limited plan for implementation spelled out in Initiative 1240.

If it passes on the Nov. 6 ballot, Initiative 1240 would simply be an experiment we can learn from, one that adds to our knowledge and experience so we can make better-informed decisions about education in the future. Charter schools may have somewhat greater flexibility to innovate, which is great, but in the end, they are still schools with all the trappings of politics and tradition that that implies.

If we are really serious about spurring creativity and innovation in education, we are going to have to get a little more radical. We are going to have to change something that is embedded deeply enough in the complex, interactive workings of the system that it creates the conditions necessary for other important changes to take place.

So here’s a crazy idea that just might set the stage for real innovation to happen — a deep change to unleash the creative flow of new thinking and practices. What if we abolished our compulsory school attendance laws, let public schools partner with families and communities to define their own educational programs, and allowed families to choose the kind of education that best fit the needs of their child?

One of the biggest obstacles to change in education is our practice of having legislators define exactly what education has to look like and how it should be assessed. But they have to do this. Why? Because we legally compel school attendance. If school attendance is compulsory, then we have an obligation to clearly define exactly what it is we are compelling people to do, such as requiring students to attend school 180 days a year, study a list of required subjects, earn a designated number of credits and pass a series of standardized state tests.

Without compulsory attendance, state dollars would follow students to the public schools or learning programs of their choice. Unlike a voucher scheme, however, these educational funds would remain public, administered by local school districts to support collaboratively created programs.

Parents would have an incentive to use the growing variety of public schools and learning programs, or otherwise forfeit their allotment of state money. And schools would have the incentive, freedom and flexibility to innovate in order to attract a diverse array of learners and the state dollars that go with them.

What would education without compulsory attendance look like? I can imagine a plethora of innovative programs: part-time schools; programs focused on specific skills, interests and themes; programs integrated with other community organizations; new public resources available for self-directed use. The sky is the limit.

The real beauty of this idea is not how education would change, but the fact that it could change and could change in a time frame that reflects 21st-century possibilities, not the 19th-century conditions that created compulsory schooling in the first place.

I am a passionate supporter of public education, but I can’t help think that compulsory schooling is an antiquated idea whose time has passed — one that limits what education and our children can become. Access to knowledge, information and experience is easier than it has ever been, and a one-size-fits-all approach fails to respect the unique strengths, capacities, and learning styles of our young people, as well as the realities of today’s world.

It’s a simple change that may not even be noticeable at first, but who knows? Over time, abolishing compulsory school attendance just might end up making the whole charter-school question a moot point.

Jim Strickland is a veteran public educator at Marysville Pilchuck High School and an Agenda for Education in a Democracy scholar. He can be reached at livedemocracy@hotmail.com.

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