The idea that a private for-profit group should compete with the public schools in educating children and that it should do so at a profit moved a step closer to reality over the summer. Whatever monopoly teachers, administrators, and school boards hold over publicly supported education seems destined to be questioned, if not changed outright. Surprisingly, the support for that questioning came not just from the proponents for choice and/or vouchers but from such people and places as the board of education in Baltimore and the president of Yale University. Benno Schmidt's announcement that he was leaving the presidency of Yale to become the chief executive officer of a chain of private for-profit schools being planed by entrepreneur Christopher Whittle sparked more reaction in the press than any similar story of a college president moving to the corporate world. While Whittle may have been trying to buy credibility for the Edison Project, the question of why Schmidt, a highly respected scholar, would take on a speculative job in K-12 education had many people looking for a deeper meaning. Whittle's plan to build a chain of private schools with anticipated revenues of $10 billion by the year 2010 is attracting people like Schmidt and others to the Edison Project design team. All of this seems to indicate that 1) there is hope for money to be made, 2) there is an expectation that public opinion will accept the idea of privatization of some of public education, and 3) there is some indication that political forces (President Bush, et al.) may succeed in breaking the public education monopoly. For people like Whittle, establishing a market niche before any competitors even have a foothold could be an astute business move. Meanwhile, the board of education in Baltimore entered into an agreement that will allow Education Alternatives, Inc., of Minneapolis to operate nine of Baltimore's 158 public schools. John Golle, chairman and chief executive officer of the private for-profit firm, said that it will receive the same sum (approximately $5,415 per student) that the city now spends to educate each student. However, Education Alternatives plans to spend the money differently and to use the accounting firm of KPMG Peat Marwick to recommend efficiencies in the non instructional side of the budget. Golle will be able to bypass the school district's procurement process, but, as the opening of the school year approached, he had not reached cost-cutting agreements with the unionized custodial or food-service employees. Although teachers can transfer out of the contract schools if they wish, by early July only 15 of 300 teachers had requested transfers. Education Alternatives currently operates one elementary school (South Pointe) in Miami and had a contract last year to manage the schools in Duluth. That contract was not renewed. REACTION TO PRIVATIZATION Writing for the New York Times, Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers referred to the potential of turning an education endeavor into a profit-making venture as the "threat of an educational industrial complex." While steps have been taken and promises made by those hoping to capture market attention, educators have been calling for rules to level the playing field on both sides. Educators have also raised such issues as local and state accountability, equal educational opportunity for all students, and separation of church and state. Is is vastly appealing to attack Whittle and others for their profit motives, and much of the popular press took this line throughout the summer. Some observers seem to reason that any profit to an entrepreneur or investor represents money taken away from students and parents. This money could be used to strengthen equal educational opportunities for the poor or to add new programs, they reason. Pushing this criticism to its limit, however, only tends to spotlight those things that cannot be explained away. Don't publishers and all of those selling equipment and supplies to the schools make a profit? Can one make a real distinction between these items and the process of delivering instructions? The fear that students will be given an inferior education - taught by uncaring teachers in substandard facilities and using poor (no nonexistent) instructional materials in the name of showing a profit - is somewhat difficult to justify. These conditions, some would say, already exist in a few public schools, and Whittle and others say that these are the conditions that need to be fixed. The recent cascade study spotlighting where the money goes in schooling - by Bruce Cooper and Robert Sarrel of Fordham University, picked up by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and now used in several large school districts may shed useful light on the question of profit versus quality. Tracking the dollars, even when there is not a category labeled "profit", may be an important way of bringing about improved instruction through improved efficiency. If Whittle's new patterns of efficiency through the use of technology will save dollars for a profit - making venture, why can't these ideas be used to save dollars wasted in the present system? SUPPORT FOR CHOICE AND VOUCHERS Meanwhile, across the country choice and voucher proponents are either touting gains or pushing efforts to make their ideas an election year issue. Some of the activity includes the following: * California's Choice in Education League collected more than enough signatures but was ruled off the November ballot because state officials wanted a 10% cushion of extra signatures. Backers say they will get a full public/private voucher proposal on the ballot for the spring of 1993. * Voucher proponents in Colorado have tried several time to put the issue on the ballot. By late July it looked as though they would have the signatures needed to get a full private/parochial/home schooling voucher plan on the November ballot. * Last March the state supreme court in Wisconsin upheld the Milwaukee plan allowing low-income parents to send their children to private schools. This effort was limited by the legislature to Milwaukee, but the court ruling might signal an expansion of the program. * The Institute for Justice - a group based in Washington, D.C. - has filed a lawsuit on behalf of low-income parents and children in Los Angels and Chicago school districts. The suit asks the courts to order Illinois and California to transfer the amount of the state per-pupil expenditure from the school districts to the parents. It further charges that the quality of education is so poor in the two cities that it violates federal equal educational opportunity laws and state constitutional provisions for education. ĘThe group has also threatened to files suits in other large cities. * The impact on the states of President Bush's G.I. Bill for Children (if it gets introduced and passed) could be significant. While the media hype has focused on granting parents a $1,00 voucher per child, the fine print in the proposal originally called for $500 million in grants to state and local governments in 50 cities across the country. These could then distribute the much ballyhooed $1,000 vouchers to parents. This probably means that all states that wish to participate would have to enact enabling choice legislation, and this would certainly trigger a debate in the states where no choice legislation now exists. THE FUTURE OF PRIVATIZATION Somehow it's always easier to believe in a new idea that involves only a minor change in our present world. Turning classroom instructional activities over to a private for-profit group will probably continue to be viewed - at least in the short term - as a major change in our public school system, however. The opinion of the public and of educators could be the deciding factor in the acceptance or rejection of the idea. When it becomes evident that the current system cannot - or will not - fix existing problems, the acceptant may come quietly, even from the ranks of educators. The Baltimore contract with Education Alternatives might be an example of this situation. If all things remain constant, we might be able to predict the results of privatization. But every additional Baltimore changes the debate and alters long-term possibilities. Anticipated momentum for privatization may also come from such events as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's cascade studies, the New American Schools Development Corporation's funded (and unfunded) projects, the Edison Project, and the charter school movement. From a political standpoint, the events of the next two months will tell us whether we are ready as a nation to support state and federal efforts to offer choices, to provider vouchers, and to privatize education - or whether we still believe in a publicly funded, publicly operated school system.
Reprinted with permission of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc.