President's Corner

Is Privatization a Facsimile or the Real Thing?


Before they actually met him, Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion regarded the Wizard of Oz as someone who could grant each of them what they wanted. When at last they encountered the Wizard, they approached him with great reverence and trepidation only to discover he was just an illusion foisted upon them by a thoroughly ordinary individual.

When I read the encomiums that some of public education’s harshest critics pay to privatization, they sometimes appear to be skipping down a yellow brick road with the hope of finding one all-powerful and magic solution to all of education's problems. Yet when we look at those instances where privatization has been employed for instructional purposes, we find that the private sector is staffed by ordinary people who sometimes are quite successful and sometimes are not successful at all. In other words, the power and magic that is sought by our critics proves to be illusory.

Where on this issue, then, does that leave those of us who lead school systems? Let me suggest that we are left in a position where our approach should be eclectic. In other words, I am suggesting we use the best means available to us when it comes to producing a high degree of student learning and not be precluded from employing certain options on purely philosophical grounds.

In making this suggestion, I am not exactly breaking new ground. For decades, we have turned to the private sector for non-instructional services. Many school districts hire private companies to provide building cleanliness, student transportation, school meals, building maintenance and other services. Districts do this because they find in the private sector more efficient and effective ways of getting these services performed as opposed to hiring their own staffs.

The argument that supports the hiring of private companies for the provision of non-instructional services is equally valid when it comes to hiring private companies for the provision of instructional services. If a district can get better results from instructional services that are provided by the private sector, why not contract for them?

Let us keep in mind, however, that private-sector companies are not by definition better at providing instruction than the staffs of public school systems. There is no monopoly on power and magic. The ordinary person who masqueraded as the Wizard of Oz could not give the Scarecrow a real brain, the Cowardly Lion real courage or the Tin Woodman a real heart. Even though he made them think they had gotten what they wanted, he gave them only facsimiles of the real thing.

We cannot provide our students with facsimiles of an education. It is our obligation to give students the real thing.

At times, though, the private sector can provide the real thing and provide it better than a public school system staff. There are a number of places in our country where school districts have contracted for instructional services and, in so doing, have noticeably improved student learning.

After all, while the Wizard failed the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion, he did come through for Dorothy. This ordinary man did not attempt magic in her case. He did a rather ordinary thing. He got himself a hot air balloon, put Dorothy in it and took her home.

In the end, how Dorothy reached home was not significant. By the same token, how our students receive the best education possible is less important than the fact that they get it. It is not our obligation to protect the way things always have been done.