Published Online: May 14, 1997


How Contracting Can Transform America's Schools

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After a decade of efforts to improve public schools incrementally, the initiative for education reform has shifted to outsiders who propose radical measures. Various fundamental reform proposals put forward since the publication in 1989 of Politics, Markets, and America's Schools by John Chubb and Terry Moe would replace regulatory compliance with student-performance standards, make schools' existence and staff members' jobs contingent on performance, give families choices among public schools, and transfer control of public funds from centralized bureaucracies to individual schools. Most of these proposals seriously challenge the defining features of the American public school system that developed after World War II--direct operation of schools by elected school boards, compliance-based accountability, civil service employment for teachers, mandatory assignment of students to schools, and control of funds by central district bureaucracies.

Many reformers believe public education has evolved into a government- and profession-run bureaucracy that takes too little account of family concerns. As Theodore R. Sizer has noted, parents experiencing the blank bureaucratic face of such schools have reason to question whether they are really public at all: They appear profoundly private, controlled by government on behalf of teachers' unions and interest groups that have managed to capture the agendas of school boards and state legislatures.

We share public education's commitment to equity, but we think schools need greater control of their funds, staffs, and instructional methods than existing public schools now have.

We propose a new form of governance for public education based on contracting and family choice. Under this plan, all public schools would operate under contracts that define each school's mission, guarantee of public funding, and grounds for accountability. These contracts would have two parties, the local school board and the individual school. A local board would be party to many different contracts, one with each school. Contracts with failing schools or schools that did not attract students could be terminated. New contracts could be offered to groups or organizations that have run successful schools or that propose programs deemed likely to succeed.

Our proposal for contract schools seeks to restore balance between the private and public interests in education. It recognizes the public interest in schooling in ensuring that students learn basic skills, prepare for responsible lives as earners and citizens, and understand basic democratic values. To protect these public interests, our proposal requires that every school operate under an explicit agreement with a duly authorized local school board. It makes room for the private interest in schooling by allowing families to choose among schools that take different approaches to education. Most important, our proposal creates conditions under which schools can serve both the public and private interests effectively.

We share public education's commitment to equity, but we think schools need greater control of their funds, staffs, and instructional methods than existing public schools now have. As political scientists, we know that any reform proposal must be politically feasible, and that total school autonomy is an illusion: No one who takes the public's funds and educates the public's children should totally escape government oversight. Contracting would give policymakers, parents, and community leaders an option, a way of reforming schools that neither relied entirely on government nor rejected any role for it.

Contracting would redefine the public school. Any school supported with public funds and operating under a funding and performance agreement with a duly constituted public education board would be, by definition, a public school. Every public school would have such an agreement. Contracting extends the charter school concept, which allows small numbers of schools to gain control of money, staff, and programs, to the entire public school system.

Contract schools would differ from one another, offering different instructional methods and extracurricular activities. Some might even operate at different hours of the day or for different numbers of days each year. Families would be free to choose among local public contract schools. Because their freedom to choose would be bounded by the range of schools available in their locality, parents could petition the local school board to establish a new contract for a type of school that was not locally available, or to reproduce a school that had become so popular that it could admit no more students. The local board could authorize new schools, but it could also decide that a particular type of school was not likely to be effective or could not attract a large enough student body to be financially viable.

Contracting would also redefine a public school board. As the local public education authority, the board would be responsible to contract for a range of school types that meet the diverse needs of the local student population, and to ensure that the community has the mix of schools necessary for all children to receive a high-quality education. The local board would identify the need for particular schools: For example, a district with a new high-technology industry might want to provide a school whose curriculum was built to help students understand and prepare for careers in that industry. The board would then seek an operator for the school, through requests for proposals or by negotiating directly with qualified providers. It would monitor its portfolio of contract schools to determine that all admit students without respect to race or income, that no child is obliged to attend a bad school, and that students attending failing schools are provided with viable alternatives. The board would not operate schools directly as it does now.

Contracting eliminates conflicts among families that have different ideas about how children should learn.

Under a contracting system, the school board would not have to find consensus on a particular school's program. Because families could choose among schools, no private individual would have standing to interfere with a school's operation on grounds that its focus or program was offensive to him or her. Schools would be able to run consistent and coherent programs, free of the need to be all things to all people.

A local board could replace contractors who failed to honor their promises, or force schools to make substantial quality improvements when performance fell below acceptable levels. A board could also maintain quality by "pruning" its portfolio of schools, meaning the lowest-performing schools could be closed and replaced.

School evaluation would have to be based on state or local student-performance standards, establishing requirements for student learning in all schools. The task of applying these standards fairly to all schools, given the inevitable differences in school instructional methods and students' levels of preparation, would be a serious challenge. Contracting makes this challenge unavoidable, but it does not create it: Any governance system seriously concerned with school performance--including the existing one--must solve the problem of how to hold different schools to universal standards.

Schools would hire teachers, either on the open market or from a registry of certified teachers, depending on the terms of their contracts. Salaries would be set by the market, and schools might compete for good staff by providing incentives to prospective teachers, such as a good benefits package or training programs. Teachers could demand higher pay for difficult situations or heavy responsibilities, and schools could offer bonuses for high performance.

New laws would be necessary in many states to authorize school boards to contract out for whole schools and to pay contractors on a per-pupil basis. Many states would also need new collective bargaining laws that allow individual schools to employ teachers and to hire on the basis of fit with the school's mission and instructional approach.

Contracting encourages innovation and diversity in public education. It eliminates conflicts among families that have different ideas about how children should learn: Since public schools can differ and parents can choose, there is no need for parents to contend with one another about the one best model of schooling. It also promotes efficient use of limited public funds, by focusing money and decisions at the school level. Contracting can produce these results without abandoning public education's concern for fairness, equality of opportunity, and progress for the disadvantaged. Though it would create stressful changes in the lives of some administrators and union leaders, it would create new opportunities for parents and teachers alike.

Contracting is not a modest proposal, but it need not be treated as an all-or-nothing proposition. It would take time to make a transition. States might experiment with contracting, by establishing it first in big-city districts where there are few good schools and thousands of students in desperate need of a more effective alternative. Similarly, cities might try it first as an alternative for neighborhoods where the regular public school system has failed for decades to provide good schools.

Paul T. Hill and Lawrence C. Pierce work at the Institute for Public Policy and Management at the University of Washington in Seattle. James W. Guthrie is the director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. This Commentary summarizes a proposal contained in their recent book, Reinventing Public Education: How Contracting Can Transform America's Schools (University of Chicago Press, 1997).

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