Public education is a cartel, as demonstrated in this blog, and cartels can be very hard to disrupt. In that article, we briefly discussed examples like Ryanair and Uber of recent successful challenges to cartels.
Internet companies have transformed many industries -- for example, Expedia, Amazon, iTunes, and many more. These are examples of a first round of disruption, disruptions that have affected traditionally-competitive industries like the entertainment sector and retailers. The second round of disruption is targeting industries that have traditionally been sheltered from competition by things like government regulation, licensing arrangements, restrictive laws that are ostensibly designed for consumer protections, and so forth. Think Uber and Airbnb.
So what about the education cartels? In fact, disruption is already taking place in the post-secondary sector -- see UoPeople, the world's first non-profit, near tuition-free, accredited online university. Currently, students can earn an undergraduate degree in business administration and computer science for $4,000 US, and more programs are being added.
When it comes to the disruption of elementary and secondary education, the challenge is greater. There are four main hurdles:
• Parents assume government involvement guarantees quality.
• Schools' babysitting role is very important to many parents.
• Parents view local schools as an important opportunity for children to rub shoulders with others of different backgrounds and develop a sense of community.
• Parents perceive existing government schools as free (even though they are paid for by tax dollars).
As a result, any new entrant into the elementary and secondary education sector will have to: a) build in demonstrable standards; b) provide custodial care; c) appeal to parents of different backgrounds; and d) keep costs low.
There is no way to predict how new entrants to the elementary and secondary sector might succeed in achieving these four goals. No one can be sure what technology will come up with next or foresee what creative and ingenious solutions the dot.com sector will generate. Here's one possible scenario.
A software company might put together a complete online curriculum, with built-in testing and reporting, that allows students to progress at their own speed using tablet computers. Already much of this software exists, although it is not yet well organized. Another (or the same) software company might make it possible for parents to access individuals, or groups of individuals, who are willing to coach a group of other people's children, possibly in their own homes or in a community centre, for a reasonable fee. Part of the software company's services could be to vet the coaches and ensure they pass health and safety checks.
For parents who still want the reassurance of sending their children to a school building, some entrepreneurial educators will no doubt step forward to establish independent schools that will take full advantage of high-tech curriculum and other technological advances.
This is of necessity a very rough outline of what might develop, and there are hundreds of details that would need to be ironed out. For example, there might be built-in requirements for such things as daily physical activity and healthy meals and exposure to the arts. Transportation providers, such as Uber, might be involved, and Airbnb might prove useful in finding venues. A website might be created along the lines of ratemyteacher.com. Perhaps webcams would make it possible for parents to monitor their children remotely.
Of course, the education industry will complain loudly about this new threat to their monopoly, and they will work hard to convince the government to outlaw the new scheme. Members of the existing education industry will loudly warn that the new entrants will be too dangerous or too élitist or too second-rate or too homogeneous or too expensive or too whatever. As a result, would-be education disrupters will have to find solutions that overcome both governmental reactions as well as allegations about problems. If the disrupters do find adequate solutions, and it's a safe bet they will, some parents will ignore the government's interference and the education establishment's dire warnings, and transfer their children to a primary service provider who is offering better or more convenient service at an acceptable price.
In addition, affordability will increasingly become an issue for the Ontario government. As it struggles to balance its budget in an era of stagnant revenues, the government's knee-jerk defence of the education cartel may weaken as it sees the potential for cost savings in the movement of more students to settings outside the cartel.
While there is no way to predict precisely how government schools will be disrupted, history suggests it is going to happen. In fact, the only real question is how the education sector will react when the disrupters appear. Will educators react, as so many other industries have, with delaying tactics and specious arguments that get swept away in a great wave of consumer demand? Or will they bring in measures to improve the quality and convenience of their service so they can stay on the gravy train for a while longer?
It's their choice.
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