Tyler Losey: Can you be for-profit and for students?
Last Wednesday the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) had a Google hangout discussion with leaders in the for-profit education field, in which they discussed the central question of “can you be for-profit and for students?” It was an interesting question, to say the least, and AEI scholar Frederick Hess and Michael Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute also address this topic in their new book Private Enterprise and Public Education. For-profit education is normally thought of as having to do with only higher education, but I was struck by the potential good for-profit education can do for K-12 education as well.
The statistics do not need to be repeated here – an astounding number of students across the nation are not proficient in basic reading and math skills. We know what the problem is. We also know how dire the problem is. And we know who caused the problem – the education establishment and the public sector that for so long have accepted mediocrity and slipping student achievement. The debate in education reform is mainly over what the solution will be. And with the pressure of other countries outpacing us in vital areas of achievement like STEM and literacy, the time is now to find solutions.
For so long in K-12 education, however, there has been an aversion to for-profit entities getting involved, an avoidance of some obscure and undefined evil that for-profits are characterized by. For-profits work in many of the same industries as government services, like health care, security, transportation and postal services. But in education? Inconceivable. Meanwhile, the public sector is viewed as having an angelic role in education despite its dismal results. It does not make sense, and in AEI’s Google hangout discussion, it was said rightfully that no one should be excluded from trying to solve the woes of our nation’s education system.
If this moral argument did not have me convinced at first, then the next phase of the discussion did the trick. Article after article is written today about the budget woes of states and school districts. After school and extracurricular programs are being cut. Teachers are being laid off. There is always “never enough money to go around”.
Funny, though, that it is not framed as “there is not enough public money to go around”, because the private sector is full of investors, and for-profits have quite a knack for attracting capital. If for-profits had a larger role in public education, there would be more available cash for vital programs and quality education for students. The financial side of the issue is most persuasive to me.
So I say, along with the discussion participants, a simple message: let’s give them a chance. Let’s allow for-profit to innovate, take risks, and take part in serving the public good and providing great service to our nation’s children. Because at the end of the day, that is what they desperately need.