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For-Profit Schooling: Where's the Public Good?

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Whittle Communications has made headlines and hopes to make history by creating a chain of for-profit schools that will show up the public education system, as well as private nonprofit schools, by offering a "better product.'' With promises of high technology to allow for fewer teachers and lower costs, the Edison Project intends to design and operate schools at the nation's average per-pupil cost while making profits.

Many have applauded this bold move, arguing that the effort could shake up sluggish school systems, demonstrate new methods of teaching, and help solve the problems that plague American education. The shock waves may indeed send a wake-up signal to any school systems yet unconvinced that major restructuring of schools is needed. But as a for-profit venture that will pit profits against services for children, the Edison Project will not solve America's real educational problems. At every step of the way, the schools will have to decide what educational benefits for students will be forgone in order to ensure adequate profit margins and whether students will be denied admission or underserved because their needs are too expensive to meet. (Although the Edison folks have claimed that any and all students will be admitted, it is difficult to see how the handicapped, those who do not speak English, or those who have other special needs can be well served at the cost targets Whittle proposes.)

There are no good, ethical answers to these questions. Pursuing profits while pursuing the public's broader goals for children's education creates a clear and unavoidable conflict of interest. The record of other for-profit schooling enterprises, such as profit-making proprietary schools and for-profit day-care centers, is not encouraging. A recent study by Sharon Kagan and James Newton of over 400 child-care centers confirmed what smaller-scale studies have found: Profits for adults come at a cost to children. On average, for-profit day-care centers provide fewer staff members; lower levels of health, counseling, and other related services to children and families; fewer and less creative materials; less child-sensitive environments; fewer opportunities for parent participation; and less racial integration than public or private nonprofit centers.

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Like these enterprises, the Whittle project will have to decide which services can be reduced or eliminated and which students will be served or not, as profit margins are maintained. The only way to imagine dealing with these dilemmas with any integrity is to structure the task so that they are largely avoided. In fact, the announced plan is to locate most Edison schools in affluent communities such as Greenwich, Conn., where home and community supports for education are already well funded and educationally needy students are few and far between. This strategy may allow some interesting new schools to enter the margins of the educational marketplace, but it also makes the Edison Project irrelevant to the major task of American education reform.

Aside from the obvious fact that places like Greenwich are not the communities in which existing public or private nonprofit schools are faltering badly, the real issue is how to create new models of schools that will effectively serve all the nation's children. Even if Whittle finds an attractive package of services to sell to parents whose children are already well along the road to the top of the educational heap, these schools will not answer the important question facing American education: How to educate the world's most diverse group of students, including a record number of immigrants from all around the globe, to the high standards of educational performance required for success in the complex, technological world we now inhabit. Such a task has never before been attempted or achieved for all citizens, beyond a small elite. At this point in history, however, no lesser accomplishment will suffice.

What for-profit schooling does not acknowledge is that education is a public good, not a private commodity. We require all students to attend school so that they will be prepared to participate effectively in the political, social, and economic life of our country. The public welfare--not just the individual's pocketbook--is served when young people become productive, responsible citizens. It is our collective failure to create a large enough number of schools that can achieve these goals for students in inner cities and poor rural areas, for students who are handicapped, for those who do not arrive speaking English, for racial and ethnic minorities who have been traditionally excluded and underserved by schools that is the problem we must solve to survive as a great nation in the 21st century.

There are a great many states, localities, and school-reform networks that are tackling these more fundamental and difficult problems. Major school-restructuring initiatives in states like New York, Vermont, California, Washington, Kentucky, and Georgia are incorporating the lessons of reforms that have succeeded in central cities and poor rural schools with students who are usually written off by traditional schooling--and will be ignored by the Whittle project as well. Theodore Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, James Comer's School Development Program, Howard Gardner's Project Zero, Impact II's Teacher Innovation Network--these and other initiatives have already created new models of schooling producing dramatic successes for students in New York City, New Haven, Conn., Indianapolis, Louisville, Ky., rural Georgia, San Diego, and elsewhere.

These efforts do not reap profits for entrepreneurs, but they reap enormous benefits for all American citizens, including people who may feel themselves to be far removed from the children and parents who are directly served. When central-city high schools graduate all of their students and send most of them on to college, as these "break the mold'' schools are able to do, everyone wins: other students, whose aspirations are lifted; local communities, whose streets are filled with more determination and less despair; and citizens everywhere, who pay lower bills for welfare and prison cells while their Social Security receipts are secured by a greater number of young people entering the workforce as productive taxpayers, rather than tax-users.

Of course, the Edison Project, which is looking at these innovative public schools for ideas to build upon, may capitalize on what has already been learned. The project certainly has enormous start-up capital and will seek to raise much more, from corporations and other private sources and--with hoped-for vouchers--from the public sector. The real costs, thus, will be higher than the price that is charged. Unfortunately, much of this capital is likely to come from the same sources that might otherwise be supporting school reforms now going on in the trenches--efforts that are less visible and well supported, that are jeopardized by recent education-budget cuts almost everywhere, and that are more essential to the hard work of serious educational change.

The question the American public should ask as it continues to search for bold new ways to redesign our schools is "Where's the public good?'' As we discover affirmative answers in the efforts of school reformers who work on behalf of children most in need, we should make sure our investments follow. The real bottom line is that when all our children are well educated, the entire nation will profit.

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