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Education Commentary

‘The Fear of the Unknown’

By Mary Bills — June 22, 1994 5 min read

A recent headline in our local newspaper, “Briggs & Stratton axes 2,000 jobs,” gets right to the heart of the fears that school people have about doing business with the private sector.

“Loss of jobs. Mcjobs. Less jobs for the families of city children,” the critics of for-profit proposals warn. “Reform, reinvent, re-engineer education,” the critics of public education urge. “Do it with less money,” the taxpayers implore.

Clearly, like our own board here in Milwaukee, school boards everywhere are struggling to balance the educational needs of children with the taxpayers’ ability to pay.

While public education has been criticized for being slow to change, it is no different than the automobile industry was in the 1960’s and 70’s. Poor quality and worse service led many people to buy foreign cars; the parallel, of course, is that low achievement, inferior service, and an aversion to poor and minority children have sent middle-class families fleeing to the suburbs and to private and parochial schools.

Milwaukee had a long history of support for public education. We paid high taxes, and we expected quality services. We had both.

Then, the economy changed, but education was slower to change. In the past three years, we have faced an escalating tax revolt and the loss of a school-building referendum. At the same time, our school population has increased, with more children of color and more poor children. Wisconsin has the poorest Asian-American children of any state and the second-poorest African-American children. Milwaukee is annually in the top three of the most segregated metropolitan areas, and, last year, we were rated number one in economic segregation.

The pressure for change is enormous. We have goals and a plan that we believe will bring about the systemic reform needed to increase student achievement and close the learning gap between achieving and non-achieving students. It involves teaching and learning goals, a strong early-childhood program, the end of remediation, and a school-to-work initiative designed to connect classrooms with the world of work and give our students the skills to change the world.

But change also requires a different school calendar that accommodates the complicated lives of our families, time for teachers to plan, and a massive investment in technology and professional development. We believe that, for our children to learn and grow, everyone around them needs to be learning and growing. We know what the best educational practices are, but union contracts, unfunded and under-funded state mandates, and ever-increasing demands on time and money are killing our chances to bring about the change the public demands. It’s no wonder that for-profit ventures are appealing to cash-strapped districts with their offers to put money into deferred maintenance, technology, and staff development.

Three years ago, our board instructed the superintendent to do everything he could to bring about change. Last November, after a teachers’ union election of hard-liners, and the implementation of cost controls by the state, the board directed the superintendent to explore any and all innovative proposals. As a result, Education Alternatives Inc. and the Edison Project made presentations to a board committee in August. Though both presentations were uninspiring, each company was invited to present a proposal for our school-to-work initiative.

In March, the superintendent informed the board that he was continuing meetings with Edison, and those meetings led to a series of hearings.

The hearings raised questions, eyebrows, and ire about who would profit and at whose expense, but they also created movement on the part of our teachers’ union to encourage innovations from within. We are cautiously optimistic that action will soon follow woe.

The public seems to share the same conflicting views about privatization as those held by school boards. Taxpayers are angry at government and skeptical about private-sector solutions. They want the stability the public sector offers for the common good and the flexibility the private sector offers for faster gains. But they worry when they see massive layoffs and wages that fall far short of supporting a family. And they worry when they see corporate C.E.O.'s enjoying healthy salaries, benefits, and golden parachutes, even when their companies aren’t doing all that well. And the gap gets wider.

Unions complain that privatization will put profit before people and cut corners on services for children. On the other hand, a large segment of the public, especially in minority communities, believes the union doesn’t care about children either--if it did, many believe, more teachers would put their own children in our schools.

Changes in autonomy and financing--whether school-based management or vouchers--can lead to even greater disparity between the powerful and the powerless. Selective admissions and discrimination is part of the track record of private and parochial schools, and they exist in our specialty schools, our city-suburban transfer program, and our state-mandated city choice program.

Legitimate concerns exist about whether children with bilingual and exceptional needs, teenage parents, and children with disciplinary records will have equal access to charter, contract, or for-profit schools. This tendency to be less inclusive could increase with an emphasis on the bottom line and results.

Most for-profit companies want the average per-pupil funding for the district, and they also want to contract for elementary schools. But most school systems operate their elementary schools at well below their per-pupil averages. Will these companies be satisfied to operate the schools they run with the same amounts of money available to the district?

Will they compete with the school district for outside funding? Will districts or schools be obliged to use investors’ products? Will the companies resort to suppressing data, as the cigarette companies allegedly have done?

On the other hand, the private sector can provide an infusion of new money and can incur and spread debt over a longer period of time than the public sector.

The bottom line is to educate all of today’s students to compete in a global economy and to live in a global society without diminishing the importance of public education in a democracy. The prototype for the future will probably be some amalgamation of the public and private sectors.

There will be scams and mistrust, but the greatest fear seems to be the fear of the unknown. Some districts may have to leap before they look in order to get to the other side.

A version of this article appeared in the June 22, 1994 edition of Education Week as ‘The Fear of the Unknown’


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