The Case for the Private Sector in School Reform

Innovative companies have improved nearly every area of public life. So why are ideologues trying to keep them away from education?

ipad-school.jpgApple Marketing chief Phil Schiller introduces a new digital textbook service at a news conference in New York on January 19, 2012. (Reuters)

Given the costly chasm between the educational performance of U.S. students and those in other countries—and the shameful gap between white students and their black and Latino counterparts here at home—you'd think school improvement would be an all-hands-on-deck imperative in which the best minds in the public, private, and philanthropic sectors came together to lift our children's prospects.

Yet such pragmatic problem,solving is threatened today by critics who condemn any private involvement in schools as a matter of "privatization," "profiteering," or worse. These ideological foes of business' contribution to the public good ignore history in their attempt to protect a failed status quo. If their campaign to quash educational innovation succeeds, the real losers will be our kids.

Here's the curious thing: Those who criticize recent private-sector interest in education never utter a peep about the billions that publishing houses and construction firms have earned through our schools over the decades.

A moment's reflection reminds us that business innovation has long been critical to public goals in sectors as diverse as health care, energy, and computing. In health care, pharmaceutical and medical device firms have worked closely with government partners to make America the acknowledged global leader in medical innovation. In energy, privately funded breakthroughs in gas exploration technologies hold the promise of liberating America from dependence on foreign oil. In computing, Google's privately funded search utility has democratized access to information in ways that improve countless lives.

The list could go on—encompassing communications, transportation, and more. In each instance, public and private actors play the roles to which they're best suited: Private firms compete to develop innovative products and services that deliver social benefits, while public authorities set goals, fund basic research, and police market abuses.

There will always be a need for government to regulate capitalism's excesses and protect the public interest—a role to which I'm deeply committed, having prosecuted several major antitrust cases when I served in the Department of Justice in the 1990s. But to argue that the profit motive somehow disqualifies business from making vast social contributions is more than merely a fallacy. It's to miss the basic economic lesson of the past two centuries—when innovations spawned by the entrepreneurial talent and capital of the private sector have been harnessed for public purposes to become the greatest force for human betterment in the history of the world. "Doing well by doing good" is a cliché for a reason.

In education, of course, private firms have always been integral to the daily life of schools. Pencils, paper, blackboards, books, desks, and schools themselves have been built and sold by for-profit companies since the 19th century. Food, janitorial, transportation, and training services have been more recent additions, along with software and computer products as the close of the 20th century.

Thoughtful observers have always understood that when public authorities contract with private firms and oversee their provision of certain products and services, that's a very different thing from "privatization." This only stands to reason, since apart from salaries and benefits for teachers, principals, and other school personnel, virtually every dollar spent on K-12 flows through private firms today.

Yet here's the curious thing: Those who criticize recent private-sector interest in boosting student achievement never utter a peep about the billions in profits that publishing houses and construction firms have (legitimately) earned through our schools over the decades. What accounts for their selective antipathy? In part, it's because these older firms have served the sector so long they've become part of the wallpaper.

But the deeper reason is that the current generation of private sector innovators want to challenge traditional ways of doing things in schools. They see a system that's failing to equip America's children with the skills to compete in a global age, and they believe passionately that innovative products and approaches could help the country do better. This determination to shake things up is seen as a threat by many who hold power over schools today, and who act as if the status quo is working just fine.

The public shouldn't be fooled by attempts to slander today's private sector innovators. Just as Edison knew he was onto something big—the idea that electricity and lighting could improve our lives—today's education entrepreneurs know they can harness emerging technologies to reimagine teaching and learning. It's a story as old as change itself. The candlemaker's union wasn't cheering Edison on. Make no mistake: The attack on new entrants into education has at least as much to do with power as with profit.

The real question for those of us concerned with improving public education should not be whether the private sector has a role—it always has and always will—but rather how best to tap what the private sector can contribute. At a moment when advances in both the science of learning and technology itself are making new educational breakthroughs possible, the short answer is that we urgently need to create a culture of public-private collaboration in research and development on behalf of our teachers and kids.

Presented by

Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, oversees the News Corp venture Amplify, which creates digital products and services for teachers, students, and parents.

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