Schools Are Not Businesses


Have you heard something like this before?  “Schools are so inefficient.  They are so poorly run,” the complaint goes.   And then, “if only schools were run like private businesses, things would improve.”
No!  Public schools are not businesses.   Nor should they be.  And the model of private business is not appropriate for improving public education.  There are lots of reasons for this, but let me just mention two of the most important:  

First, private business and public schools have fundamentally different goals.  Businesses exist for the purpose of making a profit for their owners.   Public education, on the other hand, exists for the purpose of providing a public good; something that everyone benefits from.    Students benefit of course, but so do private businesses (through employees with job skills), homeowners (through higher property values), taxpayers (through lower criminal justice and social welfare costs) and society in general (through an educated citizenry).

Second, private business owners do not face the same set of constraints that public schools do.  For example, businesses can decide on their suppliers; they can determine the quality and quantity of the things they buy to go into their business.  Not so in public education.  A key “input” in public schools are children, and the schools must take as many children as there are in the community, with whatever skills or limitations they bring with them.

Jamie Vollmer, a former businessman and attorney, makes this second point powerfully in a well-known essay entitled The Blueberry Story.   Please read it if you haven’t before (the story isn’t much longer than this post).

There are lots of things we can do to improve public education in our community.  But trying to run the district as if it were a Wal-Mart, or Exxon, or even a local small business, is misguided and will do little to solve the problems the schools face.

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