Klein: Public Sector Shouldn’t Fear Privatization in Ed

By focusing primarily on keeping the private sector out of education, advocates are ignoring some of the best opportunities for improving American schools.

As the academic achievement of American students falls further and further behind their international peers, people whose priority it should be to work on improving the nation’s schools are instead focusing on making sure that any private sector solutions are weeded out of the public school system, writes former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein in The Atlantic. Any idea with private sector backing, be it good or bad, is sure to draw protest characterizing it as mere profiteering and privatization. In doing so, says Klein, they fail to account for the fact that without any outside forces, the system, which is designed to protect itself, will never get better.

Private sector involvement underpins many public sector success stories in America, from fields as diverse as health care to computing to infrastructure. There’s a strong history of cooperation between private and public interest in the country, which is one of the reasons why it leads on many standard of living markers among industrialized nations:

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.

Embracing the contributions of private entities doesn’t mean going without governmental power of regulation and oversight. Klein takes this part of the government’s job seriously, as he proved by heading up several anti-trust cases when he was a part of the U.S. Department of Justice in mid-1990s.

But maintaining strong oversight on the system doesn’t have to mean choking it off entirely. Thus, anyone who tries to argue that a profit motive makes any approach automatically suspicious or bad ignores the potential of the profit motive to drive innovation.

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.

Even before private firms’ contributions to education came to the fore as a result of the school choice movement, they played an integral part in the success of the country’s schools. Textbooks, buildings, supplies and even school transportation and maintenance were more often than not provided by private companies under contract to the local school districts. Allowing non-government entities to perform jobs in which they have expertise is hardly the kind of privatization advocates are worried about. On the contrary, doing this often leads to better results and substantial savings compared to attempts at keeping such things in-house.

The reason why those kinds of firms rarely get questioned is because they are not interested in altering the status quo.

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.

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