Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor, La Salle University

Is it time stop spending a national average of $12,500 per year on kids who not only spit on the opportunity, but ruin it for others? Should we instead invest in restructured public schools that are open to all who want to learn regardless of age? In short, is it time for Anytime Schooling?

This truly radical school reform proposal rests on these fundamentals:

  • Public school funding has been, and will remain, scarce.
  • It is neither possible nor desirable to educate anyone who doesn’t want to learn.
  • School disorder destroys everyone’s learning and is intolerable.
  • People can, and often do, change as they grow older.

This proposal is a thought experiment intended to spur a ground level reevaluation of what can and should be done to improve our public schools.

Plain Speaking

Some “students” make little or no effort to learn; and scarce resources are used up trying to get them to do so. Teachers invest precious time and energy trying to charm, wheedle, coax, cozen and threaten these reluctant scholars. But their efforts are very often unproductive.

Sure, instructional methods can be fiddled with. But the hope that this fiddling will cause youngsters to buy in, is often vain. In the end the decision to invest effort into learning remains in the “students” hands. 

While this waste of scarce resources is going on, kids who are willing to learn are given short shrift, or lose out altogether. Why? Because the uncooperative kids too often do their level best to destroy the learning oppportunities of others. Nevertheless, a U.S. average of $12,500 per year is spent on those uninterested youngsters just as it is on those who want to learn. Such waste does not concern the troubled, uncooperative, and often destructive youngsters. But it certainly should deeply concern the rest of us. Our precious tax dollars would be much better spent on kids who are willing to learn. Moreover, there are on-the-cusp students who could and would learn, but only if their school were safe and orderly and more resources could be brought to bear. 

There is no question that uncooperative or hostile kids are that way for understandable reasons. But schools do not command the resources necessary to effectively control, much less reach, most of them. But educators must spend way too much valuable time and resources trying. Meanwhile the kids who are willing to learn, lose out. Worse still, even though they are compelled by law to attend school, they live in fear of their troubled, often dangerous, and chronically uncooperative classmates.

The distinctive function of schools, the very reason for their existence, is to teach skills that require focused, expert effort. Schools should not serve to keep youngsters off of the street, to cut down on unemployment, to fill in for incompetent and/or uncaring parents, and so forth. But this mission creep has led many educators far afield from schooling’s distinctive function. Instead of teaching skills such as the 3 R’s, they vainly try to fill the child-maiming gaps in our society by attempting to achieve all things for all youngsters. Worse, compulsory attendance means they must persist in these wasted efforts even though they don’t, and won’t, command the necessary expertise or resources to do so successfully.

Anytime Schooling

Perhaps it is time to trash today’s tinkering and adopt actions equal to these challenges. This is where Anytime Schooling comes in. It guarantees lifelong access to 12 years of public education. No matter how old you are; no matter if you dropped out or were expelled; everyone is welcome back to school provided they don’t disrupt anyone else’s schooling and make a good faith effort to learn. Courses would be adjusted to accommodate the needs of more mature learners. And the resources freed by long term suspensions could be invested in this new, age free, schooling opportunity.

But the first phase of this thought experiment reform involves a stern crackdown on indifference, defiance and disruption. Provided a reasonable effort has been made to make the subject matter vital and interesting; provided a range of alternative educational opportunities are reasonably available; a “student” who refuses to make a reasonable effort and is disrupting the educational process will be suspended for the remainder of that school year plus one additional year.

The condition of readmission is a signed, legally binding agreement of good behavior and willing effort. Any further indifference, defiance and/or disruption will result in a mandatory, non-negotiable, 2 year suspension under the same terms as the first.

The suspensions involve full school years because it obviates the necessity of individualizing the returnees instruction to accommodate studies he or she missed. Remember, a major goal of Anytime Schooling is to conserve scarce resources for the kids who are willing to learn.

Before you decide that these measures are excessive and/or hard-hearted, consider that youngsters who want to learn should have a non-negotiable right to do so unimpeded. Also consider that every child who refuses to even try, much less disrupts the learning of others, is wasting tens of thousands of precious taxpayer dollars plus irreplaceable teacher time and effort. Every public school currently wastes money and teacher effort on kids who consistently refuse to invest anything of themselves and often impede the efforts of others. Continuing to spend money of them is the equivalent of the Biblical “casting your pearls before swine.”

Legal Issues and What’s “Anytime” About It?

What of possible legal problems for Anytime Schooling? In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez  (1973) the Supreme Court ruled that schooling is not a right guaranteed under the federal Constitution. That would seem to favor Anytime Schooling. But in Goss v. Lopez (1975) the court ruled that if states decide to provide such services and require mandatory attendance, then, under the 14th Amendment, suspended students have a state-guaranteed property right to schooling. 

So, would Anytime Schooling have legal difficulties in the respective states? In some cases, Pennsylvania for example, state law requires that students under seventeen be provided with an education after expulsion. But the expelled student’s parents must provide this service. Only if the parents provide written evidence of their inability to do so must the school district take over the responsibility and provide some sort of instruction — usually homebound. Would Pennsylvania legislators be willing to change this requirement to fit Anytime Schooling?  Maybe. Plus laws can be rewritten. 

But would Goss v Lopez effectively rule it Anytime Schooling nationwide? That remains to be seen. Perhaps the guarantee of 12 years of anytime public schooling would be sufficient to prove to the present court that suspended individuals have not been deprived of their property rights under the 14th Amendment.

Some might say that Anytime Schooling is impractical because school attendance keeps dangerous youngsters off the streets. But there is a 30%+ absentee rate in many problem plagued schools plus a 50% dropout rate. These realities mean that many problematic kids are on the street to begin with. Besides, since when is temporary incarceration a legitimate function of public schools? That they have come to at least imperfectly fulfill this purpose tells us a lot about why, in some schools, learning is nearly impossible. 


Anytime Schooling would be both unnecessary and undesirable in the best of all possible worlds. But we live in the real world, and that means doing what is possible given a typical person making a reasonable effort. Requiring or expecting more is simply silly. Ultimately we will have to get real and recognize that schooling is appropriate only for those who are willing to learn