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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Money & Finance Opinion

Debating For-Profits: Kudos to Parent Revolution

By Rick Hess — November 26, 2012 3 min read

Constructive public debate clarifies, illuminates, and, with any luck, educates. Such debate requires disputants to eschew easy banalities like “education is the new civil right” or ad hominem charges that those they disagree with want to “destroy public education.” And it becomes damn near impossible when folks throw around phrases like “child-hating fascist” or accuse each other of nefarious schemes. Yet, it sometimes seems that sophomoric invective has become the norm in the education debates.

That’s why I was cheered recently by Parent Revolution’s impassioned but thoughtful and courteous response to my critique, in which I’d slammed their desire to prohibit parents who pull the “parent trigger” from partnering with for-profit school operators. Now, don’t get me wrong: I think Parent Revolution is incorrect on this. I’ve long argued that for-profits tend to be uniquely agile, able to scale, and inclined to squeeze costs--traits that are crucial to large-scale school improvement, but also that raise legitimate concerns about quality control and incentives. And they took liberties when they quoted me on the frailties of for-profits without noting that I cite those as part-and-parcel of their attendant virtues. But, that’s part of a good, lively exchange. The response was reasoned and sensible.

They argued: “We believe deeply in parent empowerment...but we also believe there is a place for regulation and rules in any system of parent choice and empowerment.” They continue, “The question becomes what types of regulations are necessary - and where society draws the line. That is the context in which we must think about the inclusion or exclusion of for-profit operators in any Parent Trigger law. We believe the introduction of a new stakeholder group that school operators are accountable to - shareholders seeking profit - will make the public school system less oriented towards putting children first...[It] troubles us when such organizations are asked not just to serve food, manufacture pencils or publish textbooks, but take control of the educational destiny of an entire school.”

They posit, “Our critics often acknowledge these concerns, but push back with the argument of scale: for-profit firms can attract capital and scale faster than non-profits. That is a legitimate argument. We have far more parents coming to us for help than we have quality non-profit charter operators willing to turn around failing schools. But we don’t believe the future of the Parent Trigger movement is rooted in finding an outside charter operator to turn around every failing school in America...[it’s] giving parents a seat at the table.”

That response took the arguments seriously and drew clear, defensible distinctions that can help parents, educators, and policymakers make more informed choices. That’s what public debate is supposed to do - and I’ve long encouraged these types of critiques on RHSU. Kudos to Parent Revolution for not just bleating the easy applause line, “Hess is a fat-head who hates schools and kids.” With any luck, maybe they’ll start a trend...

On that count, we’re hoping to build on that trend this morning at AEI. I’ll be moderating a panel on this precise question--the role that for-profits can and should play in public education, and how to craft federal and state policies that encourage for-profits to serve kids well while dropping the hammer on irresponsible or inept providers. The conversation will feature Jim Shelton from the U.S. Department of Ed, Stacey Childress from the Gates Foundation, Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute, Raquel Whiting Gilmer of Learn It Systems, and Eric Westendorf of LearnZillion. You can watch the affair live on C-SPAN at 10 a.m. EST this morning, or watch the livestream here.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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