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 denying public schools 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 The results are entirely predictable: an inefficient, outdated education system that consumes ever-increasing resources and posts flat or declining academic results. Public schools systematically, callously, year after year, fail millions of children, especially the urban poor. Private action in public education should be welcomed, not decried.
Wood: Of course schools could be better; I've spent the past 25 years working 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. We do something the private sector would never contemplate: With no control over funds, the materials we are given, or the outcomes that are dictated to us, we do our job and enjoy the highest trust of any institution in this country.
Wilson: But you make my point for me. Why should you accept such circumstances? It's personally noble, yes. But it's lousy public policy. Private managers of public schools, under arrangements only barely less constrained, are demonstrating the promise of entrepreneurial engagement: A recent study by the Brookings Institution compared academic growth of students in nine states over two years. Students attending schools run by private companies posted the greatest achievement gains; those in traditional district-run schools showed the least.
Wood: A review of national test scores points out that when you control for income, public schools do a better job. But let's get back to the larger question: If you want to see the big problem with privatization, look at grocery stores in America. Go to any low-income neighborhood and you will find stores with high prices, substandard products, little choice. Head to the suburbs and you'll get organic foods, specialty stores, plenty of choice. For-profit enterprise is about profit, not good food for everyone. Similarly, with schools, for-profit companies will invest where there's money to be made—by serving students who are the easiest to teach with the most family resources to supplement the schools. But here's an alternative: If it's true that the entrepreneurial freedom makes some schools work well, why not just reduce the limits on the talents of the public-school leaders?
Wilson: On the contrary, most education entrepreneurs have opened schools in inner cities, serving children from economically disadvantaged families. But I welcome your suggestion: Let's take the shackles off of our most capable public-school principals. In exchange for holding them accountable for results, let's give them the flexibility that private-sector leaders take for granted. That's the bargain schools chancellor Joel Klein has proposed for New York. Hundreds of principals have already stepped forward to lead the new "empowered" schools.
Wood: Precisely. We should be looking for ways to strengthen public schools, not for ways to make a profit off of them. Above all, schools are a public good. While we may not always get it right, we are subject to public control and oversight. There is no evidence that abandoning this public commitment will get us better schools, or a better standard of living. But doing so could cause irreparable damage to nurturing in our young the habits of heart and mind that make democracy possible.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.