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My colleague Rick Hess has a great op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal on the irrational fear of for-profit education that too many people harbor, and the education policy bias against the private sector:
K-12 schooling is a $600 billion-a-year business. In 2008, schools and systems spent $22 billion on transportation, $20 billion on food services and even $1 billion on pencils.
These transactions typically elicit only yawns. Yet angry cries of “privatization” greet the relatively modest number of reform-minded, for-profit providers that offer tutoring or charter-school options to kids trapped in lousy schools. Gallup surveys show that more than 75% of Americans are comfortable with for-profit provision of transportation and facilities. Barely a third are fine with for-profits running schools.
These Gallup numbers are instructive. The vast majority of Americans understand that competition can drive down costs and increase quality in transportation, food service, and school supplies. They’re okay with companies competing in these areas because they understand that competition leads to improvement for students and better value for taxpayers.
Even with education provision itself, Americans are okay with the rhetoric of competition. Consider the president’s “Race to the Top” program–what is a race if not a competition? So the objection comes not from competition per se, but from the profit motive. But this objection isn’t well-grounded either empirically or theoretically.
As Rick points out, for-profit education providers can be sensibly regulated, especially with respect to transparency–just as for-profit transportation and food service providers are. I would add that this regulation should create a level playing field between different types of providers across the for-profit, non-profit, and public sectors, not serve to benefit entrenched interests.
Education policy can and should embrace educational entrepreneurship and a culture of competition. The presence or absence of a profit motive is, by itself, a red herring.
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