Bias against for-profit education providers is off the mark

Ben Austin of Parent Revolution and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute have been engaging in a civil dialogue on the merits of educators and parents being able to purchase instructional and management services from for-profit corporations. Austin opposes allowing parents and educators to have this option, while Hess is a supporter.

While Ben Austin (pictured here) is clearly well intentioned, his argument is based on ideology and politics, and not good public policy.

While Ben Austin (pictured here) is clearly well intentioned, his argument is based on ideology and politics, and not good public policy.

Austin’s advocacy of parental empowerment derives from his belief that public education too often puts adult needs over the needs of children. He thinks giving parents more influence over how their children are educated will move students to the center of educational decision-making. But Austin opposes allowing parents to contract with for-profit corporations because he thinks these companies will be more concerned with profit than children’s needs. A summary of Austin’s position was recently posted on the Parent Revolution blog: “Because we believe children need to be put first in every decision, it is far better to have non-profit organizations – accountable to parents, taxpayers and a stated mission – than a for-profit organization, which by definition is accountable first and foremost to investors and shareholders … ”

Hess argues that for-profit corporations already provide billions of dollars of products and services to school districts every year, and if parents decide a for-profit company can best meet their children’s needs, they should be allowed to work with it.

I agree with Hess. While Ben Austin is clearly well intentioned, his argument is based on ideology and politics, and not good public policy. Parents should be free to contract with providers that best meet their children’s needs.

The ad hominem aspect of Austin’s argument is troubling. While I was doing my holiday shopping this year, the gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity of the salespeople I talked to was irrelevant, as was their employer’s tax status. What was relevant was the quality and price of the products or services they were selling. I suspect Ben has these same priorities when he shops, and he likewise does not consider a corporation’s tax status when he purchases products and services for his family and friends.

To implement a public policy that assumes nonprofit corporations will always provide parents with the best balance of quality and price defies logic and reality. If nonprofit corporations always provided better quality at the best price, for-profit corporations would be out of business.

Over the last two months, I have asked three Parent Revolution staffers why their organization opposes allowing parents to contract with for-profit corporations. In each case, the answer related to Austin’s connection to the Democratic Party in California. This makes sense to me.

I am a lifelong progressive Democrat, so I’m well aware of the anti-business and anti-profit bias that exists in some corners of my political party. I also know Ben has to pick his battles. But if Parent Revolution wants to be relevant outside of California, it needs to embrace full parental empowerment. That includes the right of parents to contract with educational providers  – public, private, for-profit or non-profit – that best meet their children’s needs.

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