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Privatizing Teaching

Latest news from the Mitten State: Legislators propose privatizing teaching. Lots of ways to accomplish this, including designating Michigan a "right-to-teach" state, preserving the right to collectively bargain for police, firefighters and private-industry unions, but making teacher unionizing illegal.

The idea of hiring free-lance "teacherpreneurs" is thrilling to management types-- they picture savvy school principals and superintendents sorting through crates of top-notch applications, a la Zeke Vanderhoek. What an exciting decision: whether to go with the gung-ho Harvard grad who's willing to teach 200 kids now that the contractually mandated cap of 150 is gone--or should they take the newly trained, in-state teacher so desperate for a job she'll agree to reduced starting salary and advising the junior class?

Starting an on-line "credit recovery" program for kids who've dropped out might be another way to turn an ordinary public school district into a lucrative business venture. In fact, once we've dropped the facade of being a publicly owned resource, there are limitless opportunities for "insanely leveraging" public money in the previously untapped education marketplace. It's all for the kids, of course.

Where's Norma Rae when you need her?

In Michigan, we're well acquainted with privatizing. My district went through rounds of privatizing over the past two decades. Because it's a small town in a semi-rural area, most of the support staff were locals. I taught the children of our school secretaries, custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers. When I wanted a reception after a concert, the lunch ladies would provide sheet cake and coffee. Bus drivers would bid on festival runs so they could hear their kids (and, later, grandkids) perform. I did a lot of spontaneous parent-teacher conferencing at the Xerox machine, and the day custodian used to DJ our dances and emcee the winter Talent Show.

All of this built intra-staff trust. When the district first looked at outsourcing, the superintendent refused to consider food service because he loved their homemade rolls. Besides, the cafeteria staff was willing to re-negotiate their wages and benefit packages when times were tight, suggesting ways to cut corners.

When custodial work was finally outsourced, 15 out of 36 custodians placed by the private firm were gone by the end of six months and six more were fired while still on probation. Worse--buildings and grounds that had been tended with pride for years were ratty and filthy, and parents felt uneasy about letting their kids stay after school in a building staffed by strangers. You get what you pay for.

How will this play out when it comes to teaching? Same principle, I would imagine.

If you're operating a school under the economic premise of getting more for less, there is little incentive to invest in professional development, staff relationships or powerhouse programs over time. Turnover would increase, as teachers looked annually for greener pastures, burnishing their skills in low-rent markets, then moving to schools where the pay was better. Full Walmartization of the educational workforce might take some time, but eventually, all edu-jobs could be filled with the lowest-priced employee.

The idea of taking care of each other, in a community, is now outmoded. Intangibles like trust and commitment can't be purchased. But they do matter.

And the discussion about privatizing teaching isn't about economics. It's about democracy.

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