Who’s Afraid of School Profits?

Should there be a separation of school and profit? Many opponents of education reform seem to think so.

Case in point, a blog post at the Washington Post yesterday decried “outside forces that want to make big profits on the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children.” Setting aside that the vast majority of private schools are nonprofit, the author apparently misses the fact that parents choose to send their kids to these schools. (Does it make sense to complain that other businesses are profiting “on the backs” of their paying customers?) In order to persuade parents to switch to private schools, they must offer parents something that the free-to-attend government schools do not. Even when a school choice program covers the full cost of private school tuition, the parents would merely be financially indifferent. To motivate parents to choose something other than the default government school option, private schools still must offer something better.

Moreover, it is absurd to think that profit—in the sense of financial gain—is limited only to the for-profit sector. Do teachers, principals, and other school staff from janitors to bus drivers “profit” from their salaries or wages? What of the profits made by the corporations that publish the textbooks that students read? Or construct school buildings? Or manufacture desks, whiteboards, pens, pencils, and playgrounds? Whether government- or privately-run, nearly every adult involved in the formal education process is earning a “profit” short of the parents who volunteer to chaperone the high school dance.

Those who denounce “profits” in education simply don’t understand the role of profits in a market. Perhaps they are confused because in the government-run education system with which they are familiar, there is little connection between financial gain and meeting the needs of students. In a competitive market, by contrast, profits (and, just as importantly, losses) provide valuable information. As explained in Herbert Walberg and Joseph Bast’s excellent book, Education and Capitalism: How Overcoming Our Fear of Markets and Economics Can Improve America’s Schools (which is celebrating its 10th anniversary):

In a capitalist economy, profits are the reward earned by firms that maximize the quality of services and goods, minimize overhead and bureaucracy, motivate their workers to achieve high and consistent levels of productivity, and avoid unnecessary expenditures. Successful firms sell better, cheaper, or better and cheaper products and services than do other firms. Customers notice, and business gradually shifts from inefficient to efficient firms. […]

Low-performing government schools don’t gradually lose customers and face the threat of closure, the way an inefficiently run business does. As a result, there is little urgency for reform. Their assets do not move from the control of those who have misused them into the hands of others who could do a better job. (Pages 98-9)

In our existing education system, only the financially well-off can afford to live in the expensive districts with high-performing government schools or to pay for private schooling. Without school choice programs, low-income families are locked out of these markets. Instead, their only option is the local, assigned, government school. If I blogged for WaPo, I might say that these underperforming schools are built on “the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children.”