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Teachers For Sale?

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Frustrated with teaching French to middle school students, Steven 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, 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 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 district in need of an instructor to teach a single class of Japanese, for example, could contract with a firm such as Iverson's to do the job-- provided the teachers hired were licensed and the school district had consulted with its teachers' union.

Interest in the idea is not limited to Wisconsin. It was a discussion topic at an educational-issues session of the Midwestern Governors Conference held in early October.

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

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

In addition, they say, 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,'' notes State Senator J. Mac Davis, the Republican who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill.

But the measure's many critics cast it in a potentially more harmful light. The state's largest teachers' union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, contends that the measure is an attempt at ``union busting.'' And the state superintendent of public instruction, Herbert Grover, calls it ``a ridiculous idea.''

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

To its critics, the measure is a thinly disguised attempt to help schools cut costs. Says State Representative Richard Grobschmidt, a Democrat, "I think the overriding motive is not to elevate the profession or provide quality education, but to find a way to hire teachers on the cheap.''

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

There is also the danger, others warn, 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 the program.

But proponents assert that 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, but they would be willing to do so because the program is superior,'' says Brown.

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

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

Similar versions of the bill, introduced in two previous legislatures, 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.

The concept of private-practice teaching originated in Minnesota more than a decade ago with a group of educators and business people. 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.

"Without funding, we had no money to market our idea,'' says Roy McBride, a former member of the Partners in Arts of Minneapolis, a team of four artists who tried several years ago to sell their services to local public schools. At first, their teaching efforts were supported by a regional foundation. But when the grant money ran out, the partners found they couldn't support themselves, so they decided to split up, McBride says.

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

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

But 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,'' Olson says. "But I don't think it's going to be a huge revolution.''
-Debra Viadero, Education Week

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