Steven F. Wilson
Senior fellow, Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government; founder and former CEO of Advantage Schools
Principal, Federal Hocking High School, Stewart, Ohio; director, the Forum for Education and Democracy
Resolved: For-profit companies shouldn't run public schools.
Wilson: The irony! Here we are, in the temple of entrepreneurialism, debating a proposal to continue to deny our public schools—our most troubled institution—that greatest of American strengths, private sector innovation. The results are entirely predictable: An inefficient, outdated education system that consumes ever-increasing resources and posts flat or declining academic results. Worse still, in many inner cities, the public schools not only betray our shared ideals. They are our national shame. Systematically, callously, year after year, they fail millions of children, especially the urban poor. How can there be equal opportunity without universal access to a high quality education? Private action in public education should be welcomed, not decried. Let's engage the talents of private sector in reinventing the schools.
Wood: Not so fast, my friend. Let's look at a couple of your suppositions before we go on, beginning with the claim that our public schools are our most troubled institution. Really? Checked out the health care system lately? How about Congress? And before you credit the American private sector with too much innovative power let us not forget Enron and General Motors to name just a couple of instructive examples.
Of course schools could be better; I've spent the past 25 years working inside of them to do just that. With fewer resources than any CEO would accept, my school and thousands like it are doing a terrific job for every kid that walks through the door. We do something the private sector would never dream of doing: with no control over the funds we have, the materials we are given, or the outcomes that are dictated to us, we do our job and enjoy the highest level of trust of any institution in this country (see the 5/22/06 Zogby poll).
Wilson: But you make my point for me, George. Why should you, as the school's leader, accept such circumstances? It's personally noble, yes. But it's lousy public policy. Why should most public school principals have no control over their budgets, materials, or staff? Private managers of public schools, under arrangements that are unfortunately only barely less constrained, are demonstrating the promise of entrepreneurial engagement: A recent study by the Brookings Institution, perhaps the country's most respected think tank, compared the academic growth of students in nine states enrolled in three types of schools: privately managed public charter schools, independent charter schools, and traditional district schools. Students attending schools run by private companies posted the greater achievement gains over the two-year period of the study. And students in district run schools showed the least.
Wood: I am not sure I buy your point about who does the best job. A review of national test scores points out that when you control for income (that is make sure you are comparing children from similar backgrounds), public schools do a better job of educating children ("Charter, Private, Public Schools and Academic Achievement: New Evidence From NAEP Mathematics Data," Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, National Center for the Privatization in Education, January 2006). The very study you cite points out that 24.6% of the charter schools are failing by state standards as compared to 21.3% of the regular public schools (p. 31).
But let's get back to the larger question of should schools be turned into for-profit enterprises. If you want to see the big problem with privatization, look at grocery stores in America. Wander around any low-income neighborhood and you will find high prices, substandard products, little choice. Head to the suburbs and you'll find organic foods, specialty stores, plenty of choice. For-profit enterprise is about profit, not good food for everyone. Similarly, with schools, for-profit enterprise will go and invest where the money is to be made—by serving students who are the easiest to teach with the most family resources to supplement the schools. This is not what we need when it comes to education in a democratic nation that claims we are all equals as citizens.
But maybe there is another place where we might agree. Let's assume you are correct that it is the freedoms that private entrepreneurs have that make some schools work well. Rather than just turn the schools over to them, why not use this lesson and reduce the limits on the talents of the public school leaders? This is what we would do if, say, the police force or army was not working. We wouldn't privatize either of them; we would take lessons learned and make them better. Public schools are the same sort of institution, a public service for the public good.
Wilson: Here's the rub with both the Lubienski study and the finding you pluck from the Brooking report: Both compare student proficiency levels, not the growth in proficiency over times. When students arrive at the schools' door with widely varying skills, and where many suffer from years of educational neglect, growth in performance is the true measure of school quality. Even the Lubienskis concede in their report that "one cannot conclude from this analysis that public schools are more effective at promoting student growth than private schools." As for private entrepreneurial initiative and the inner city, the data do not support your conjecture that operators would concentrate on affluent, easy to teach students. On the contrary, most education entrepreneurs have opened schools in the inner cities serving children from economically disadvantaged families.
But I welcome your suggestion, George: Let's take the shackles off of our most capable public school principals. In exchange for holding them strictly accountable for results, let's give them the kind of flexibility that private sector leaders take for granted. That's the new bargain schools chancellor Joel Klein has proposed for New York City. Hundreds of principals have already stepped forward to lead the new "empowered" schools. Let's wish them every success.
Wood: Precisely. There is no need to privatize public education nor turn it over to private entrepreneurs. Rather, we should be looking for ways to strengthen public schools, not for ways to make a profit off of them.
There are many examples of such public efforts that have been successful. The schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools network, the Comer project in New Jersey, the pilot schools in Boston, the New York Performance Standards Consortium to name but a few. And then there are all those schools that communities tell us time and time again they like—their neighborhood schools that have served children so well for so long. I believe there is much we can do to improve our public schools, and am committed to doing my part. And the best examples of success are actually found in the public sector.
While we may agree on freeing up schools and their communities from onerous restraints, where I think we will continue to disagree is over the issue of turning them over to for-profit enterprises. To make a profit requires selling something for more than what it cost to make it. I don't think we really want to make a profit off our kids; which would require diverting some of our educational resources to profit rather than to teaching and learning.
Above all else, schools are a public good. We tax ourselves so that we can have the democracy and standard of living we enjoy through the provision of public services such as schools. While we may not always get it right, we are subject to public control and oversight that prevents us from "cooking the books" or hiding our mistakes. There is no evidence that abandoning this public commitment will get us better schools, or a better standard of living. But to do so could do irreparable damage to nurturing in our young the habits of heart and mind that make democracy possible.
Steven Wilson's book, Learning on the Job: When Business Takes on Public Schools, was published in January by Harvard University Press.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.