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'In the Best Interest of Students'

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The option of private management for public schools and school districts has emerged as a serious possibility--not necessarily because it is unquestionably better, but because it forces a debate that has been too long absent from the policy arena: What are kids learning? How can the system change to teach them more? Simply considering the option of private management forces attention on managing schools in the best interests of students and their learning.

It is the beginning of the debate itself that causes consternation among the public school "insiders" who have long been able to rely on certain givens--among them, that the public/political system will deliver education, not provide for it. Educators see government as a producer of services, not a provider. By controlling the production, educators can and have overwhelmingly caused the evolution of a public school system that is managed for the convenience and interest of adults, not the young people who are to be taught.

Private management could and should improve public education--but public management has the same opportunity. More important, public management has had that opportunity for the past 25 years--and done little with it.

Giving private management a chance is a promising way to break from the failures of public management and the frustration of trying to change a system where those in control of the classroom have neither the interest nor the incentive to do so.

However, merely grafting private management onto an existing public school system offers little chance of success. Such limited efforts face substantial barriers, notably in the collective-bargaining agreements most districts have with teachers' unions. If private management is to succeed where public management has failed, it must accompany serious commitment by the school district to real changes at all levels.

If united with that commitment, private management currently holds greater promise of success than does public management, for several key reasons:

  • The private manager will negotiate a contract at the outset where success is largely defined in terms of improved student learning.
  • Unlike public managers, private management's entitlement to compensation is at risk if established goals are not met.
  • The private manager will have greater flexibility to change what is happening in the classroom.

As an example, contrast the process by which a private management contract is negotiated with the negotiations between a district and a new superintendent. The private vendor wants to set goals and objectives; seeks incentive payments and is willing to accept lower base money assurances; and is open to defining success by whether there are discernible, measurable improvements in student learning as a pre-condition to continuing in the future.

Typically, a contract with a new superintendent requires guarantees of payment, severance pay if the school board politics change, no incentive for performance, benefits for retirement, and no goals for student performance (along with no penalties for declines).

So, will private management work better? While it is perhaps disingenuous to begin by suggesting that public school systems, on the whole, could hardly be worse off, many people start from that viewpoint--and with some justification. The phenomenal social cost of school failure (including welfare costs, criminal-justice demands, and community violence) are frequently, and with some logic, cited as convincing evidence that schools must do better. Couple that with persuasive commentary from employers and postsecondary educators who argue that far too many high school graduates cannot succeed without remediation in basic math and communications skills, and it becomes hard to argue with the evidence that real change is necessary.

The key to success for private management will be the extent to which it can bring better teaching into the classroom. And that is the biggest barrier as well.

If the private manager is restricted to existing rules, regulations, and practices, then the possibility of success plummets. Private management will likely have very little impact on a system where only the top leadership changes. It will have an immense and positive impact only if the school board uses the occasion of "going outside" for leadership as an opportunity to retool the system in the district from top to bottom.

Recognition of the need to transform the whole system of schooling to focus on learning improvement is, for the most part, the underlying premise for charter schools and other deregulated approaches. Countless scholarly articles on school improvement over the past several decades have identified far too many circumstances where better schooling has been introduced into the publicly managed system only to be absorbed, compromised, and eventually lost--most often overwhelmed by the internal resistance of educators to change their ways.

The dilemma has been exacerbated by the evolvement of rigidly observed collective-bargaining systems. Properly based at the outset on leveling the playing field for teachers, collective bargaining has, over time, become an essential barrier to improved learning.

Nearly without exception, negotiated contracts have removed the factor of improved student learning from any evaluation of teacher performance or career development.

Public school teaching today is a rare example of a profession in our society where there is no incentive or reward for better performance and no penalty for failure. Whether students learn more or fail to learn in the classroom has no impact on a teacher's career or compensation.

Astonishingly, many leaders of teachers' unions argue that the real problem with schools, particularly inner-city schools, is that the "raw material" (in this case, students) is inadequate. Can anyone think of another profession where the professional blames the "clients" for failing to perform? For nearly every other profession, the more difficult the case or client, the more challenging the search for an answer or solution.

Adding private management to a public school system, when coupled with real change in the classroom and defining success by whether kids learn more of what they need to know, holds great potential for success. Superimposing private management on a system where nothing else changes will fail--just as public management has failed to change the institution of public education over the past two decades, a time when virtually every other institution in our society has changed radically.

See the next article in this special report,

Mary Bills, June 22, 1994.

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