I went to Wesleyan University, a far left paradise where the number of conservatives could be counted on two hands (one for students, one for faculty). Naturally, in my first education policy class, we all went crazy about the horribleness of the voucher/privatization movement. But despite our talk, when the professor played the devil’s advocate, none of us could come up with a solid case against the movement. It was a fantastic exercise, forcing us to realize that most of our critiques were shallow and emotionally driven. Indeed, I don’t think we were alone: my biggest gripe with the professionalization movement (or anti-reformers) is their essentially visceral and emotional case against the role of for-profits in education. Such arguments are ineffective at persuading half the population, ignorant of the reasonable hope of for-profit organizations to improve schools, and miss the opportunity to discuss the surprisingly convincing empirical and theoretical arguments that for-profit organizations cannot improve our schools.
The American Enterprise Institute is advertising a new book exploring the role of for-profit institutions in education. The video included seems to have a very one-sided take in favor of giving for-profits a chance, but the book seems to have a refreshing diversity of contributors and supporters (most surprisingly Columbia’s Jeffrey Henig). I haven’t read the book yet, but have been thinking alot about for-profit education and thought I’d use the occasion to explore the topic, since it may be gaining speed in terms of popularity as it may be the one thing that unites the reformer and the tea party right (and perhaps even some on the left that are averse to bureaucratic control of schools). Now, I am very nervous that for-profit education will spread, because I don’t think it will help. I’ll explain my reasons in the next post, but for now want to emphasize that there is a very persuasive case to be made in favor for-profit education. I think the left needs to get better at rebutting that argument. So I’ll play devil’s advocate. Prove me wrong.
The case for for-profit education: Think about the world economy in the 1500’s. Think about life expectancy, quality of life, diversity of culture, etc. Now compare that to today. It is not difficult to argue that the number one driver of such improvement in virtually every single indicator was the spread of free market (read: private property rights, freeish trade, not necessarily lack of regulation, redistributive income taxes, or lack of a safety net) institutions. As the deeper economic thinkers have argued, this is true not just because competition aligns incentives or is inherently virtuous, but because it allows people with the best information to make decisions. Prices then embody this localized information, and therefore give the rest of the world more information with which to make important decisions. Free markets also promote comparative advantage, so that the people and organizations are naturally guided by such price signals contribute in arenas where they have the most to offer. Finally, they ensure creative destruction, where instead of stagnating, unproductive businesses or industries go out of business, more efficient ones replace it, and displaced workers find more lucrative and productive uses for their skills.
Whether or not education is in “crisis”, we can all certainly agree that it hasn’t improved in efficiency at the same rate as the rest of the economy. The thought of our education system continually improving, innovating, and becoming more efficient at the rate of the rest of the economy should appeal to equity advocates, economists, and disgruntled taxpayers alike. The best case for applying this market-based logic to our school system (sympathetically reviewed by a far-left educational economist) is John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which makes a case that many “anti-reformers” (not necessarily professionalizers) should find compelling: democratic control, especially in conjunction with collective bargaining, produces centralization, diminished school and teacher autonomy, and more regulations/reporting for the most struggling schools, invariably increasing their struggles. This is empirically true, as evidenced by virtually all complaints about the current school reform movement. They believe having an accountability system that rests on consumer choice in a market-based system would allow for school autonomy and specialization (think of principals as owners), which would translate into teacher autonomy, a more nuanced understanding of what good teaching is, and a more professional workforce. Instead of being held accountable to districts, states, and the federal government, schools would only be accountable to the families they serve. Their success would hinge on their students’ and families’ satisfaction.
Many have taken this idea a step further, arguing that integrating markets into education would allow for unbundling schools (half way down), so that traditionally defined roles and expectations (for example, one elementary school teacher teaching all subjects to one class of 25 students without help) get unpacked and then reassembled in ways that take into account teacher skills, student needs, etc. (for example, an all-star literacy teacher could spend all day teaching students how to read). Most teachers probably would agree that they either dislike or are not good at some of their responsibilities (e.g. discipline, paperwork, grading, math, teaching social skills, organizing the classroom, certain kinds of special education), and that some of their colleagues excel in these areas. A market-based system would give schools the autonomy to experiment with unbundling, so that you could specialize in what you are best at. It could also allow schools and districts to rethink what parts of the “teaching” role require advanced degrees and what kinds of courses would best prepare teachers. This may send productive signals to ed schools, and help clarify what exactly we mean by creating a teaching profession.
Think this could be done without the corrupting influence of profits? Think of pervasive political and district corruption over the past decades, think of the not-for-profit organizations that pay their friends exorbitant salaries while getting checks from all the biggest philanthropies. In a for-profit world, your salaries are only as big as your impact. Excessive profits or salaries would result in underinvestment in education, excessive parental dissatisfaction, and loss of revenue. Salaries would be high only to the extent that they attracted the best school leaders and teachers.
So, to sum up, do you think schools have not improved nearly as fast as they could be? Do you hate the idea of obtusely measured test-scores driving teacher evaluations, school rankings and closings, and teacher pay? Do you think forcing schools to make AYP, to plan their year around standardized tests or face forced turnaround or closure is both stupid and inhumane? Do you think your school and classroom should have more autonomy to address the concerns of your students and families? Do you think it’s reasonable that schools can have different approaches to achieving strong results for their students? Do you think schools shouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel each year because of capricious local, state, and federal regulations or mandates? Do you think students have unique needs to deserve unique individualized attention, that they are more than a datapoint? Do you think the ultimate measure of your success can be summed up in the relationships you build with your students and families, not necessarily your test scores?
Clearly, school choice, vouchers, and for-profit education are for you. Don’t agree? Prove me wrong.