America’s large urban school districts are often the lowest performing, least efficient, and most resistant to change. The poster children for this reality are perhaps Detroit and Washington, DC, but the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has long been in the running as well.
Yesterday, there was a sign that LAUSD would like to get out of that race for the bottom: the district’s school board voted 6 to 1 in favor of a plan that would hand up to a third of its public schools over to private management. Ignoring for a moment the question of how well this policy will work, it is categorically, undeniably, a sign of change. In the past, such private contracting arrangements in large districts have usually been the result of state or mayoral takeovers. This is the first case that comes to mind in which the plan was the product of an elected school board that has just had enough with its own administrators’ unsatisfactory performance.
Keep in mind that school board elections suffer low-turnout, and that support for candidates is dominated by public school employee unions looking out for their own members’ salaries and job security. If THAT process can produce such a clarion call for parental choice, competition, and diversity in educational provision, times ARE changing.
Now let’s stop ignoring the question of whether or not it will work. There’s not a whole lot of research on the subject. The most recent and detailed review of a similar contracting-out arrangement in Philadelphia, by Harvard’s Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos, finds that non-profit management organizations in the city underperformed the district somewhat in reading and math, though the reading difference was statistically insignificant. The same study found that for-profit management organizations outperformed the district in both subjects, though the reading difference was again statistically insignificant.
Honestly, though, I don’t think anyone believes that the LAUSD plan was the result of a painstaking comparison of all the policy options and the choice of the one most supported by the empirical research. It is a cry of frustration with the status quo, and an implicit recognition of what most people already know: monopolies are bad at giving consumers what they want at a reasonable cost; choice and competition drive up quality and drive down costs in every other field, so why not bring them to bear in education? And finally, the LA school board’s action represents a desire to get something done NOW, that is actually within the board’s power to accomplish.
My sympathies are with the board members who are trying to make a positive difference within the system we have, but the question for voters and legislators is: why stick with the status quo at all? Why not open up the field of education to all the freedoms and incentives of the free enterprise system, rather than trying to cobble together a pale, ad hoc immitation of it? Because what the massive body of international scientific evidence shows is that the freest, most market-like education systems are the ones that outshine public school systems by the greatest margins.