Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Annals of Privatization

by Tom Bozzo

So an education "reform" panel suggests comprehensively privatizing school management as one of several means of aligning results with expenditures. While the panel is, naturally, "bipartisan," the commissioners' array of corporate connections (including, in a number of cases, seemingly to the nascent education-industrial complex) gives this a distinct whiff of foreordained conclusions.

Granted, discussing this is a waste of brainspace on my part, since I assume that implementing the recommendations from this report will be about as high on Nancy Pelosi's agenda as the tax reform commission's. Still, the report would be easier to take seriously were there not significant questions as to whether privatizing school management actually is effective. This had been hotly debated in the econoblogosphere a couple years ago, and key links (MaxSpeak from the left, Marginal Revolution from the right) still work! Take that, link-rot! Another working link that is the one really worth checking out is this one, to an American Prospect piece by EPI's Lawrence Mishel.

If you don't think there's a sales job on, the commission's homepage has a hold-on-to-your-wallet blurb:
“Anyone who hopes to hold a job in the next several decades should read—if not memorize—this extraordinary report.” —Norman R. Augustine, Retired Chairman and CEO, Lockheed Martin Corporation
'Cause doesn't the spectre of defense contractor involvement just say "cost effective" and "efficient" to you?

Meanwhile, I'd suspect you could make a good drinking game out of appearances of "competitiveness" and "entrepreneurial" in the report.

Districts, they said, should relinquish control to the most highly qualified contractors, who would be rewarded for successfully running schools -- or fired if student performance languishes.

Just like Halliburton!

The schools "would be like charter schools in one crucial respect: They would be highly entrepreneurial," said Marc Tucker, vice chairman of the commission and staff director and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

I'm sure the private managers would be highly "entrepreneurial" at keeping property tax dollars flowing to their top line.

The real question is whether lack of "entrepreneruship" in school management is the major problem facing public schools. The other real question is, just how inefficiently are school district and individual school administrations constituted relative to the private sector alternative? And if there are privatization-related economies, how long will that survive the private-sector administrators "benchmarking" themselves against executives of comparably big firms and/or the most extravagantly compenstated elite-private-school headmasters?

Snark aside, the efficiency question strikes me as open, and whether privatization would free up resources to be directed at the classroom (or returned to taxpayers, if you're so inclined) will depend a lot on what sort of firms took over the school administrations. One possibility is that many districts will become divisions of education megacorporations, which may be able to employ higher-level administrators than most districts, but will also have the inefficiencies of having highly-paid executives, making them fly private jets, hiring lobbyists, and the like. The other is that districts effectively fragment, in which case it's hard to see how the private arrangements will be efficient once all the entrepreneurs have earned their profits. Clearly, quality may vary (positively or negatively) by either model.

(Note: I attended Catholic schools that were light on administration and which served me just fine, but which didn't pretend to provide universal service.)
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