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Citing 'Flexibility,' Schools Float Plan To Hire Teachers From Private Firms

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By Debra Viadero

Frustrated with his job teaching French to middle-school students, Steven P. Iverson left the classroom three years ago and never looked back.

Instead, he went into business for himself, forming a Milwaukee company that specializes in teaching foreign languages to individuals and business groups. Today, Mr. Iverson employs 150 other language teachers to meet the demand for his company's services.

But a controversial measure being considered by the Wisconsin legislature could lure Mr. Iverson and other teachers like him back into the classroom--this time on their own terms.

The bill would allow teachers to form private practices and contract with schools for their services. A school district in need of a Japanese instructor to teach a single class, for example, could contract with a firm such as Mr. Iverson's to do the job provided that the teachers hired were certified by the state and that the school district had consulted with its teachers' union.

"I see it as giving schools flexibility that other organizations already have to offer programs that they might not otherwise offer," said Senn Brown, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which strongly supports the bill.

Mr. Brown and other proponents of the idea pointed out that private teaching practices would be similar to the private-practice firms operated by doctors, lawyers, and accountants. They said the measure would give teachers greater autonomy in their work, provide schools with a mechanism for ensuring accountability, and draw enterprising teachers such as Mr. Iverson back into the classroom.

In addition, they said, it would allow schools to stay on the cutting edge of developments in the fields they teach.

"It's a minor variant that would help fertilize the system a little bit, spice it up," added state Senator J. Mac Davis, the Republican who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill. Hearings on an identical bill in the state Assembly took place last month.

A 'Ridiculous Idea'?

But the measure's numerous critics paint the proposal in a potential4ly more harmful light.

The state's largest and most powerful teachers' union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, has labeled the measure an attempt at ''union busting." And the state superintendent of public instruction, Herbert Grover, has called it "a ridiculous idea."

"What are we going to do--auction off teachers' services?" Mr. Grover asked.

To its critics, the measure is a thinly disguised attempt to help schools cut costs.

"I think the overriding motive is not to elevate the profession or provide quality education," said state Representative Richard Grobschmidt, a Democrat, "but to find a way to hire teachers on the cheap."

Mr. Grobschmidt, a former social-studies teacher, noted that school districts would not have to pay fringe benefits for the private-practice teachers they hired. The result, he predicted, would be a decline in morale--and a possible loss of jobs--for the staff teachers whose salaries might be undercut by those of the private practitioners.

There is also the danger, warned a former teacher who testified at last month's hearing, that schools simply would contract each year with the lowest bidder for a particular program--a practice that could erode the continuity and educational quality of its programs.

But proponents said hiring private-practice teachers would not necessarily be less expensive for school districts.

"It may be that school boards would end up paying more money," Mr. Brown said, "but they would be willing to do so because the program is superior."

Currently, Wisconsin law is silent on whether school boards may contract for teaching services. Whether a school district engages in the practice depends largely on how the district's lawyer interprets the statutes.

The Milwaukee school district, for example, already contracts with private day-care centers to provide half- and full-day kindergarten for disadvantaged 4- and 5-year-olds.

And, Mr. Grobschmidt said, schools that have difficulty finding part-time teachers on their own can work with other school districts in the region to share a full-time teacher.

But advocates of the bill contend that the state law needs to be amended to prompt more school districts to try the idea.

Similar versions of the bill, introduced in two previous legislative sessions, died in committee. And even some proponents of the current measure concede that passage is not likely this year--even though the bill has sparked more interest this time around.

Minnesota's Experience

The concept of private-practice teaching originated with a group of educators and business people in Minnesota more than a decade ago. By 1984, this nonprofit group, called Public School Incentives, had published several reports on the idea.

The group envisioned the concept on a much broader level, proposing that school districts hire private teaching practices to teach a particular unit in a class or even to operate entire departments or schools.

And, from 1985 to 1987, a dozen such practices were formed in that state, according to Ruth Anne Olson, who helped pioneer the concept. She is a former teacher who now contracts with foundations and school districts to design and evaluate programs.

But since that time, the idea has languished in Minnesota as well.

"We found that there were only some districts willing to try it. Period," Ms. Olson said.

Ms. Olson and other supporters of the idea in her state have changed their tactics. Rather than promote the idea directly, the group has supported other changes in the state's educational structure that they hope will introduce the idea of competition to educators and create a climate more conducive to private teaching practices. Most notable among those changes is the state's comprehensive open-enrollment plan, which allows parents to enroll their children in any public-school district in the state.

"Once the dynamics in the system are in place, my feeling is we'll come back to this notion," said Ted Kolderie, one of the original architects of the idea. He is currently a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies in Minneapolis.

Even if the idea gains widespread acceptance in either state, proponents expect that few teachers will risk their job security and fringe benefits to try it out.

"I tend to think it's inevitable that it's going to happen," Ms. Olson said. "But I don't think it's going to be a huge revolution."

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