by James V. Shuls, Ph.D.
Director of Education Policy, Show-Me Institute
In a classic episode of The Three Stooges, the phrase "Niagara Falls" triggered a visceral reaction from Moe and Larry, which ended with Curly getting punched, slapped, and thrown to the ground. I am often reminded of that episode when I talk to policymakers and public school officials about school choice. Like Moe and Larry, they seem to have their own trigger word – privatization.
Many reject outright the idea of allowing public dollars to follow a student to the school of his or her choice – including a private school. Never mind that there is a long history of individuals using public dollars at privately operated pre-schools and universities. When faced with this proposition for K-12 education, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) said that is where he draws the line. Missouri Rep. Jeff Grisamore (R–Lee's Summit) echoed his sentiment: "Public schools should be publicly funded and private schools should be privately funded, period." Like the reaction to Niagara Falls, these responses are almost hysterical.
They are laughable because public dollars already flow to private institutions. Examples abound. Nixa Public Schools outsourced maintenance to Sodexo based out of Paris, France. St. Louis Public Schools contract with First Student, "the largest bus company in North America," for transportation services. More than 100 public school districts contract with Chesterfield, Mo.-based Opaa! to provide food service for public school students.
Every day, school districts rely on private, for-profit providers to deliver services and supplies. Some even contract with private schools to serve their most at-risk students. Yet, for some reason there is strenuous objection to private school choice programs that allow individuals to direct their education dollars to the school of their choice.
Opponents of school choice claim that private schools are unaccountable. That is, they do not have to teach the state's academic standards, administer state standardized exams, or comply with a host of burdensome regulations.
This argument assumes that the only way to have accountability is through government regulations. That is not the case. Accountability simply looks different in a school choice system.
When parents choose a school for their child, they are essentially entering into a contract with the school for the education of their child. In the traditional system, parents have little recourse if the school fails to meet that obligation. They can meet with teachers, principals, and central office staff. They can even take their plight to the school board. At the end of the day, however, they have very little ability to hold the school accountable for meeting their needs. They are dependent upon the school for change.
In a school choice system, however, the dynamic is very different. In fact, the arrangement between parents and schools in a school choice system closely resembles the contracts between public schools and private service providers. If Opaa! fails to provide nutritious meals, they can be fired. Similarly, if a school fails to keep a child safe or does not live up to the expectations of the parents, the school can be fired.
Choice is a powerful accountability tool.
Opponents of school choice like to throw out the word "privatization" as if it were a bad thing. Yet, public schools contract with private providers in nearly every aspect of our K-12 education system.
If the goal is to provide a world-class education to students, policymakers need to avoid the knee-jerk reaction against school choice and recognize that the private sector can help deliver on the promise that every child should have access to great schools.
James V. Shuls, Director of Education at the Show-Me Institute, earned his Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Arkansas. He holds a bachelor's degree from Missouri Southern State University and a master's degree from Missouri State University, both in elementary education. Prior to pursuing his doctorate, James taught first grade and fifth grade in southwest Missouri. His primary research interests are in the areas of school choice and teacher quality. His work has been featured in numerous media outlets, including: Phi Delta Kappan, Social Science Quarterly, Education Week, The Rural Educator, Education News, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.