A recent commentary in the Detroit Free Press complains about a “Parent Trigger” bill that has passed the state Senate and is pending in the House. This would essentially empower parents to convert a conventional public school into a charter public school managed by an operator of their choice. Surprisingly, the author of the piece, Ben Austin, was among the originators of the Parent Trigger concept in California (where conventional schools and unions have used thuggish tactics to prevent parents from actually implementing it in failing local schools).  

Austin’s concern with the Michigan version is that it doesn’t explicitly forbid parents who have “pulled the trigger” from choosing a for-profit charter school management company to run the converted school. However, he gives no reason for this opposition other than repeating a common refrain that “profit has no place" in education. 

While the notion that schools should be “above” self-interest and the profit motive has a certain raw populist appeal, a moment’s reflection reveals it to be ridiculous: Should schools also purchase only textbooks produced on charitable printing presses? Should their cafeterias only serve food grown on government farms? Should teachers not be financially rewarded for their hard work to avoid them acting in their own self- interest?

In short, without empirical evidence or even an argument to support it, the assertion that education should be divorced from the profit motive amounts to little more than an “aesthetic” preference.

As Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute has argued, operationally, for-profits and nonprofits are more similar than they are different. Both seek to maximize revenue, but for-profits can devote some of it as earnings for investors. In a competitive environment, investors of charter school management companies can only gain if the company succeeds in attracting customers (read: parents) by creating the high-quality learning environment they seek for their children. Those sharpened incentives are why there’s no reason to assume nonprofits will do a better job educating than for-profits. 

The real shortcoming in the Michigan Parent Trigger bill is its arbitrary limit on which parents can exercise the option. Only parents whose children are attending one of the lowest 5 percent of schools (based on average standardized test scores) are eligible to pull the trigger. Those with children stuck in schools that barely exceed this “cut score” and that may be undesirable by many other measures are out of luck.

All public school parents should have access to this potentially powerful reform tool. Incentives matter even in education (for both nonprofits and for-profits), and an unrestricted Parent Trigger would encourage all public schools to meet the needs of their customer-parents and children by providing an “or else!” consequence if they don’t.