Friday, August 30, 2019

Small: No profit in schools?

No profit in schools?
By Jonathan Small

I’ve seen some defenders of Oklahoma’s educational status-quo insist that one benefit of the current system is it is untainted by profit motive. That’s a view that can be perpetuated only if one stays in a constant state of willful blindness, because here’s the truth: People are making billions off Oklahoma public schools every year. Every day someone—whether it’s a school employee or private contractor—is making money off public schools.

In 2017, more than $1.5 billion was spent by Oklahoma’s public schools on supplies and purchased services. In most cases, that money went to private vendors selling goods and services for a profit.

The school buses weren’t built by local school officials. The law firms hired by district are not normally donating their services for free. Textbooks are a big, national business, as are the standardized tests used in the classroom. When district voters approve a bond for new buildings, the materials are purchased from private companies and the buildings are erected by private entities.

Profit motive is apparent even among those who advocate for public schools at the Capitol. During the 2018-2019 school year, four school districts—Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Bixby, and Jenks—spent nearly $200,000 combined in taxpayer funding on contract lobbyists.

Certainly, those who work for those private companies may care about local schools. But they also care about their bottom line.

At the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, we have long argued parents should be able to send their children to the school of their choice with taxpayer funds, and we’ve supported privatization in other areas of government. Opponents object that this would mean private schools could make a profit off school-choice. But, as noted above, people are making a profit off schools every day. And if the end result is a better education for a child, who cares that a school is financially rewarded for improved performance?

School choice policies that empower parents are not an important reform because they introduce profit motive into education. They’re an important reform because they use market forces (and the associated profit motive of vendors) to increase the power of parents. The current system uses profit motive only to boost the power of administrators dealing without outside vendors.

Schools have good reason to use outside vendors for a wide range of goods and services. But the free-market forces that give schools greater value when contracting for those services will work equally well if we give that same power to parents.

I’m glad schools use free-market forces to get a fleet of buses at the lowest possible price. But it would be even better if we used those market forces to also generate well-educated students across Oklahoma.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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