A Modest, and Perhaps Naïve, Proposal

By 08/26/2009

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Yesterday the Board of Education for the city of Los Angeles voted to allow private operators to run up to one third of the district’s public schools. The decision comes on the heels of other major cities – New Orleans, Philadelphia, the District of Columbia – who decided to hand significant portions of their public schools over to charter companies. And in some cities, notably Milwaukee, major voucher programs continue.  With these developments as backdrop, and more sure to come, the elite debate that pits proponents of privatization against opponents is sounding increasingly antiquated.

The fact is, the line between public and private in American education has always been blurred, and it is only growing more so.  But when reforms are contemplated that would transfer responsibilities across the public-private divide, the ensuing debate almost invariably pits one group sounding the wonders of choice and competition against another insisting that we recommit ourselves to a system of education that is essentially public in nature.

None of this is especially useful.  And the arguments that are offered are almost never new.  Like our health care system, our education system, through and through, contains a mix of public and private operators offering a range of services, often within the same building, to America’s children.  The real question is not whether our system of education will be public or private, but what kinds of regulations the state will impose on America’s schools, and what aspects of education will be subject to collective bargaining arrangements.

Unfortunately, the public debate rarely gets around to these important details. And so they are left to elected officials and teacher unions to haggle over in the quiet solitudes of back boardrooms—like Superintendent Ramon Cortines is doing now in Los Angeles.

With the hopes of shifting the public debate onto more productive ground, I’d like to suggest the following: those who traditionally argue on behalf privatization should come forward and suggest an area of private schools that the state should regulate; and those who put their stock entirely with traditional public schools should recognize an aspect of education that decidedly should not be regulated by the state.

At the end of this exchange, it may turn out that proponents of privatization only offer anti-discrimination clauses on the basis of race and religion, and stalwarts of traditional public schools insist that every protection of teachers remain in force. But I suspect, and I suppose hope, that some among the two sides will find areas of agreement that their public rhetoric entirely belies—and that this might serve as a basis for a more fruitful exchange, which, heaven forbid, might productively inform the important decisions that Cortines is making about which schools will be operated by which private operators under what kinds of contracts and with what system of oversight.

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  • Francis Shen says:

    Very interesting post Will!

    The question of collective bargaining arrangements in the context of the LAUSD is a very interesting one given Steve Barr’s efforts at Green Dot Public Schools to develop a new style of ‘thin’ agreements. Here’s Barr’s description:

    “If you’re creating a new system you need a new unionism. If we’re more streamlined and we have less bureaucracy we should pay the teachers more – which we do. We want our teachers to be part of the decision-making so they feel they have more say in the game. We want them to also commit to being more accountable: you don’t have a job for life no matter what you do. Everybody is going to know we serve the kids first, not the teachers first. There’s no minutes or hours in our day – it’s a professional contract and we require a professional workday. There’s also “just cause” instead of tenure – which most businesses have. It gives you some protections but it’s not an end-all. If teachers’ unions understand the vision – you dramatically improve the working conditions for a teacher, you’re going to get more money and you’re going to have more say on what goes on in front of you – that dramatic change of work conditions is going to bring a whole new army of teachers into the profession. Currently the system scares out potential teachers – so you don’t have a teacher shortage, you have a work condition problem.”

    Returning to Will’s main point, the necessary compromises at the state house may still pose serious limitations to such push for new union relationships. I’ve been studying state legislative behavior on school choice, and despite bipartisan rhetoric at the national level, the politics of school choice in the statehouse remains very partisan driven in large part by teacher union contributions.

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