They Say They Want a Revolution: Privately-Run Public Schools

     “Don’t know much about history. Don’t know much biology. Don’t know much about science book. Don’t know much about the French I took.”

     That Sam Cooke song expresses what many experts sense about American students. To fix the problem, one group of experts recommended a revolution: taking public school administration out of the government’s hands.

     That’s right – a recent report featured on the cover of Time magazine proposed a number of solutions, including privately-run schools and some steps toward school choice. The report is likely to be debated among policymakers as the 2007 reauthorization of No Child Left Behind legislation creeps closer. But the media downplayed solutions that leaned toward privatization, either ignoring or criticizing them.

     The report, from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, graced the December 18 cover of Time. The commission recommended a drastic overhaul of the public education system, including privately-run schools. But in more than 3,000 words the magazine never used the word “privatization.” Instead, on the third page of the article, Time referred to the commission’s call to “reorganize who runs the schools.”

      But the magazine didn’t explore the privatization concept. Instead, Time was busy asking, “How many ways can you combine nickels, dimes and pennies to get 20 cents?” and defining “the new literacy” as high school juniors discussed a documentary called “Loose Change,” which makes a case for a 9/11 conspiracy theory.

     A December 14 Associated Press story buried the suggestion for privatizing public education in its eleventh paragraph: “One other major shift would put independent contractors in charge of operating schools, though the schools would remain public.”

     AP included two critics of that idea in the story, but not a single proponent of it.

Competing in a World Economy

     While Time focused on students’ understanding of alternate theories of history, the report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce called for an educational revolution to ensure that American workers can compete and maintain standards of living in a changing world economy.

     The commission included 26 education, labor and business leaders from both political parties, including two former federal education secretaries. In 1990, the first Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce released a different report, but with the same purpose – to examine the world economy and determine what American workers would need to survive in it. Several of the original commission recommendations were enacted.

     The New Commission proposed $60 billion in major changes to the public school system, including:

    Creation and requirement of State board examinations at the end of 10th grade, allowing students to enter community college, prep for a more elite school, or remediate to pass the examination Recruitment of the best teachers and enticing them with higher pay, offset by lower pension benefits Modification of the governing and funding structure of schools so that property taxes do not determine school funding, and creating contract-run schools managed by for-profit or non-profit groups

Media Ignore Charter-Like Concept

      But the suggestion of creating charter-like schools out of the current education system was barely reported by news media, even though the commission’s report earned the attention of the major papers, Time magazine, and some television.

     CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight” did not discuss the privatization issue. During the December 14 show, Kitty Pilgrim mentioned both the board examinations and teacher pay increases, but not privatization. She said “The report also recommends creating high-performance schools,” but neglected to say how commissioners thought they could be created.

     CBS “Evening News” simply delivered the facts: “Public schools would no longer be run by local districts. Instead, schools could be managed by groups of teachers or private companies,” said reporter Thalia Assuras on December 14.

      Neither ABC nor NBC had segments on the commission’s findings at all.

Contract-Run Schools

     The executive summary of the report, titled “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” said, “schools would be operated by independent contractors, many of them limited-liability corporations owned and run by teachers.” It also said “helping organizations” could operate schools.

     These organizations “could range from schools of education to teachers’ collaboratives to for-profit and non-profit schools.”

     Parents would also have school choice, having the right to choose a school for their children from among the contract schools.

     But why privatize? The report stated that “The competitive, data-based market, combined with the performance contracts themselves, would create schools that were constantly seeking to improve their performance year in and year out.”

     While the report did not name such schools charter schools, commissioner Marc Tucker told The Washington Post they “would be like charter schools in one crucial respect: They would be highly entrepreneurial.”

    Cato Institute policy analyst Adam Schaeffer said the concept “sounds similar” to charter schools and that “it is a step toward the right direction.” But Schaeffer said he doesn’t think the idea goes far enough, because it doesn’t decouple taxpayers’ money from the bureaucracy.

     But as the report explained, it would provide some competition. Journalist and author John Stossell explained in a March 1 column entitled “Competition Works” how public education can benefit from competition.

     “Educational experts, freed from the massive regulations that snarl the public schools, can come up with new and better ideas for teaching,” Stossel said. “Competition works because it gives people incentives to produce – it inspires them to work constantly at trying to find better ways to please their customers. The bad producers lose their jobs – but the best ones gain new customers. Bad schools will close and better schools will open.”

     That perspective was missing from most reporting on the revolutionary recommendations.

Critics Only

      While The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times included the concept of privatization, none sought sources from outside the commission to support or explain it.

      The December 15 Wall Street Journal put the proposal to privatize schools near the beginning of the story, but later mentioned “two former labor leaders” on the commission who dissented from that proposal because they claimed “letting private contractors run all public schools [is] ‘an open door for profiteers’.”

      No one was quoted in the Journal who favored the contract school idea.

      The executive director of the National School Boards Association, Anne L. Bryant, was quoted in the December 15 Washington Post article criticizing the contract schools idea, but the Post did not quote anyone from an organization that favored the proposal.

     On the same day, The New York Times quoted commission member and New York City School chancellor Joel Klein, calling him a supporter of the idea. Like the Post, the Times included privatization in the lead paragraph but followed later with union criticism of the proposal.

    Not one of these three major newspapers quoted a non-commission source who supported the steps toward school choice, despite many organizations and experts who support it.

     Those experts include Dan Lips, an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation, who said, “I think this is in the same direction as charter schools. And what we’ve seen with charters is a step forward for American education. Some are providing the best examples of what public education can be. I think the charter school model is something that everyone should be able to embrace.”

What a Wonderful World This Would Be?

      Jane Porter’s article about the report did the best job of explaining how the system would change. Although it did not include outside opinions on the school choice issues, Porter explained how the process would work and quoted commissioner Klein.

     “The commission’s 10 recommendations would gradually transform locally run public schools into privately owned projects run by contractors. These contractors, made up of experienced teachers, universities, nonprofits, and public and private organizations, would operate in a more entrepreneurial manner than the school districts we know today. According to this system, contractors will be held accountable by school boards who control whether their contracts are renewed.”

     Porter quoted Klein, who said, “If you align the incentives properly … you will see much more dynamism, much more entrepreneurship, and much more differentiation, which is not what you see in public education.”