Corporate reformers of public education claim schools should operate more like businesses and although that mindset may bring some efficiencies, it can also result in less money in the classroom.
One example is the latest effort by the Education Finance Reform Group who has hired Jonathan Paton to “educate stakeholders” on behalf of participating districts. Educating stakeholders is not new, the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) has been doing it for a long time. A private, non-profit, non-partisan organization, ASBA provides training, leadership, and essential services to more than 240 governing boards representing nearly 1 million students in Arizona.
What is new however, is the competition for students that both corporate reformers and open enrollment have driven. Competition in business helps ensure only the strong survive. Competition in public education pits district schools against charters, private schools, home schools, and even against each other. It drives the need for districts to include marketing line-items in their budgets such as the $54,000 per year Phoenix Union High School District spends. It also lures away the very students and parents who if they stayed, could help make a difference for all.
I’m not advocating parents shouldn’t put their children first and foremost. I understand they want the best for their own children. But, I also agree with what John Dewey said over a century ago: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” It is natural for parents to care the most about their own children. But, we’ll all have to live with these children when they become adults, whether or not they are well-educated, productive citizens.
There is a better way. Arizona lawmakers could acknowledge that: 1) our K-12 per pupil spending (50th in the nation) is linked to our subsequent education performance (49th in the nation), 2) our teacher shortage is a crisis caused by low pay and even lower morale, 3) quality businesses looking to relocate to Arizona care more about an educated workforce than they do about tax breaks, and 4) all schools accepting taxpayer dollars should operate under the same rules for transparency and accountability. Finally, they could acknowledge that despite having open enrollment since 1994 and leading the nation in the number of charter schools, their formula isn’t working for our children!
There are some business practices that make sense for schools to adopt. Public community schools however, are in the business of educating our children, not turning a profit. Until we focus our efforts on ensuring all Arizona’s children have every opportunity to succeed, we haven’t addressed the problem. And, until lawmakers step up to this reality and tackle it head-on, it’s all just smoke and mirrors.