For the Public Good

Recent news that Arizona is tied for last in the nation for college completion rates and first in student loan default, just added fuel to the fire in the state’s education race to the bottom. But of course, there is more to the story (there always is.) The rest of the story is that Arizona’s public universities actually have a better than national average on graduation rates and loan payback. It is the for-profit and mostly on-line colleges (such as Phoenix University) that see half the average completion rate by their students and there numbers drag our public universities down.[i] This report mirrors numerous stories of late from for-profit K-12 charters around the country where corners are cut and children suffer.

Why do many of the for-profit institutions do so much worse? I believe the problem lies in the “for-profit” motivation. Corporate and legislative “reformers” of education would have us believe that schools should be run more like businesses and that the private sector can do a much better job if we will just unleash the dogs of industry. The truth is though, that business is in the business of making a profit; that is why it exists. Yes, a business may very well provide an important service or product, but in the end, they exist to make a profit.

I realize that increasingly, there are those who believe government is a beast that should be starved until it is a shell of its former self. But, when it comes to providing large-scale services for the public good, government is the answer. If business exists to make a profit, then government exists to serve the public.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a product of government. I grew up in an Army family, in the Air Force for 22 years, and I have a Master’s degree in Public Administration. I’ve seen government work for people. I’ve seen countless, incredibly dedicated military members and civil “servants.” Yes, I’ve seen some losers too, but then those exist in all walks of life. What I’ve come away with from this lifetime of public service (military brats serve too, just in a different way) is that when it comes to providing for the public good, there is no substitute for a non-profit entity accountable to the people it serves. After all, the people are paying for the service.

By way of example, let’s compare the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) and Walmart. AAFES is the Army and Air Force’s answer to Walmart. It provides stores on Army posts and Air Force bases, which sell goods and services to military members at lower than retail prices. The stores aren’t fancy and the selection isn’t super, but they do provide much of what members and their families want and need. AAFES does not exist to make a profit, but it does generate revenue, which then is funneled to help provide morale, welfare and recreation activities for service members and their families. Some of their stores generate a great deal of profit (location, location, location), with others operating at a loss. The Army and Air Force accept this outcome as a “cost of doing business” because the return on investment it seeks from AAFES is happier, healthier service members and their families. Walmart, on the other hand, exists to make a profit. If Walmart has a store that is continuously operating at a loss, chances are it won’t exist for long. That’s because Walmart’s business model is to produce a profit for their shareholders.

When it comes to educating our children, there may well be some for-profit schools that do a decent job. But, when profit is the priority, somewhere, somehow, the public good will suffer. Unfortunately, it is often those most disadvantaged to begin with that lose out. That’s because when your motive is profit, you do whatever you can to ensure efficiency and return on investment. In education, this means you work to ensure the best possible raw product (smart students with engaged, well-off parents.) You will try to avoid accepting English language learners and special needs children. Not because they don’t deserve an education, but because they cost more to educate. Along those same lines, you don’t provide services that are not profitable, such as transportation and food service. Elimination of these services has a side benefit for these businesses by the way, of discouraging students from the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

Until we recognize that the education of our children is the ultimate public good and, that we all have a stake in ensuring it is done properly, we are not going to make progress on improving results. Contrary to recent headlines, our public schools are NOT failing. But, if we continue to allow our education tax dollars to be siphoned off to private and for-profit schools, with virtually no accountability or transparency, we will continue to see our public education degraded and our state winning the race to the bottom.

[i] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2015/07/28/arizona-college-graduation-rate-lowest-nation/30769711/