Choice - Vouchers and Privatization








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.

Reference: Pipho, C, (1992, September), Choice - Vouchers and privatization. Phi Delta Kappan, 74(1), 6-7.

Reprinted with permission of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc.

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