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Following For-Profit Providers (I)

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The Miller-McKeon NCLB II Discussion Draft would bar for-profit firms from nine school improvement programs in Title I, and many more throughout the law. I now understand why the Business, Foundation and Innovation panel of the House Education and Labor Committee's Gang of Forty Four Hearings on September 10 was dominated by nonprofits. Somehow, some many someones on that committee have come to see philanthropy and nonprofits as the “supply side” of school improvement.

That Washington’s edwonkdom is at least reinforcing this view is suggested by the American Enterprise Institute’s October 25th conference "The Supply Side of School Reform and the Future of Educational Entrepreneurship" organized by Fred Hess. It is something of a “who’s who” in the new education philanthropy and follows a similar conference with the same folks last year. Yes, a handful of presenters make a living in organizations that pay taxes, but a correct representation of the subject would have almost no nonprofit representation. I applaud the idea of the nonprofit school improvement community meeting in Washington, but the title is wildly disproportionate to their role. The closest analogy I can think of would be "Major League Baseball Sluggers and the Future of Intramural College Softball." The latter title would be seen for what it is; that the former will be treated seriously by the education press, eduwonks and policymakers, says too much about the world inside the Beltway.

As a participant in, and an observer of, both for- and nonprofit sectors in school improvement, I find the willingness of Congress to rely on nonprofits utterly amazing. Philanthropy and nonprofits are at best proving grounds. With rare exceptions (like Success for All and, to a much lesser extent, KIPP, that tend to prove the rule) scale is simply beyond their capital and managerial capacity. It’s obvious that the committee staff hasn’t done its due diligence on the question of supply and its members are woefully ignorant.

On the other hand, for-profit school improvement providers have done very little to educate Congress about their collective size, scope and capacity. There’s been plenty of special pleading on behalf of firms (Edison, Kaplan, Sylvan) and segments (especially Supplemental Educational Services), but precious little consciousness-raising. In this respect, the Education Industry Association (EIA), Software and Information Industry Association Education Division and the National Council of Education Providers have neglected public education in the largest sense - and let their members down.

Indeed, one could argue that EIA's March 2007 "Education Industry Days" meeting in Washington, typically focused on policy, actually reinforced the idea of supply as a nonprofit prerogative. How? By choosing the topic of entrepreneurship and nonprofits, rather than the more important matter of for-profit prospects under NCLB II, and inviting Hess to give the keynote address. The opportunity cost? Not discussing the role of the for-profit industry in the achievement of NCLB's goals.

Even if for-profits have dropped the ball, there is no excuse for serious education policy analysts and legislative staffs to neglect research on the role of for-profits in school reform. And believe me, I have heard that its not done because it's just "too difficult." As a former researcher, I find that a challenge rather than a turn off. Nevertheless, it is hard to follow the industry, and for the next few days, I’ll share some research strategies.

1 Comment

"I applaud the idea of the nonprofit school improvement community meeting in Washington, but the title is wildly disproportionate to their role."

I -- and many others -- agree wholeheartedly. It seems oddly difficult for really smart people in the education research community to either accept or acknowledge that capital plays a role in supply side progress.

But, the one incorrect statement in this otherwise incredibly strong blog is in regard to the National Council of Education Providers and its role in educating members of Congress. The issue of how public schools are characterized in federal law was first raised by NCEP members more than two years ago with numerous Administration officials, committee staff and more. Friendly ones told these education company reps that opening that pandora's box would have to wait, but there would be a time. (Pandora's box? Textbook companies make money and computer firms and training firms "provide" services to schools but they are permitted.)

NCEP members have often provided advice and counsel to members but there is a lot more to do, you're right. Just don't confuse public posturing with good policy discussions that may happen at different levels. Meanwhile, it would be a heck of lot easier and allow us all to spend more time and money on helping students achieve if the real entrepreneurs in American education would we welcomed to do more than dot the landscape of the more widely-read and attended wonk events.

But hey, the term Ivory Tower didn't get created for nothing!

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