Across America and Michigan public school districts are increasingly turning to privatizationcontracting with private, for-profit service providersto maximize the use of educational resources and improve the quality of support services, ranging from busing to building maintenance to food services.
Because of its proven effectiveness and increasing popularity as a management tool, privatization is embraced by Michigan's two associations for school board members, but to different degrees.
Michigan Association of School Boards
The older and larger of the two associations, the MASB was founded in 1949 and currently has members representing almost every Michigan school district. Its mission is to promote public education, keep board members informed about education issues, and represent its members' interests in the political arena. According to Executive Director Justin King, MASB "above and beyond all else stands for local control" of schools.
However, the MASB limits membership to school board members of public school districts and charter schools established by those districts only, excluding trustees from private schools and many charter schools. Its official position on privatization states that while the MASB "supports local school board investigation of the use of privatization," the association limits such investigation to "non-instructional areas within the public school setting." In other words, MASB opposes contract hiring of teachers outside the auspices of the school employees' union. It draws a line at the classroom door when it comes to privatization.
MASB policy goes on to say that private-public partnerships should not involve "vouchers, grants, or the sale of school facilities" to private entities. This places the association in opposition to many school choice proposals (which privatize the decision of where children will go to school). It also disapproves any transaction involving the sale of school facilities, even if such a sale would enhance educational quality and service.
The MASB maintains a business/corporate "associate membership" program that serves as a venue for private service providers to meet and develop relationships with school board members. The program fosters privatization of support functions including bus, janitorial, and cafeteria services, but MASB policies prohibit many other agreements that might grow from the public/private relationships.
Michigan School Board Leaders Association
Founded in April of this year, MSBLA sees itself as a "funnel for new information and new ideas" to Michigan's approximately 4,000 school board members, according to Lori Yaklin, the association's executive director. MSBLA members include school trustees from public, charter, and private schools. "We want to be the alternative to the cookie-cutter approach to education," Yaklin says.
The MSBLA's enthusiastic support for exploring all forms of privatization as a reform and cost-control strategy contrasts with MASB's policies and fits with MSBLA's goal of "promoting the efficient use of educational resources."
"There ought to be more choice as far as support services," says MSBLA Chairman and Van Buren Public School District Trustee Tom Bowles. Schools should "actively pursue these comparisons [of service providers] and ought to consider re-bidding services every two to three years," he says.
MSBLA does not oppose the purchase of school property if it will enhance school quality and service. And it is open both to private teacher contracts and the ultimate in "local control," school vouchers.
Interestingly, despite MASB's opposition to contracting privately for teaching services, many of its members' districts not only supplement their staff with teachers hired outside the purview of a union contract; they also pay a private firm to teach their instructors how to educate young people in phonics-based reading. The MSBLA does not oppose such instructional outsourcing so long as it is good for students.
PA 112 Expands Opportunities for Schools to Privatize
Privatization is often a thorny issue for school boards during labor negotiations. In the past, school employee unions often demandedand received from school districtsclauses in their labor contracts that prohibited privatization.
That changed with the passage of Public Act (PA) 112 in 1994, which took school boards' right to privatize noninstructional (non-teacher) support services off the bargaining table. This left school boards free to contract with any private company or individual they found could do a better job for less money. "Support staff negotiations have been more reasonable" as a result, says MASB Director of Labor Relations Susan Dumala.
But that does not mean unions have stopped fighting privatization. Bowles of MSLBA admits that union anti-privatization campaigns depicting school workers as victims "are a difficult thing to fight."
But he predicts that as the benefits become more and more pronounced over time, attitudes will have to change. Privatization of support services, correctly implemented, can help a school district fulfill its stated purpose: education. "Educational variety is keyone-size-fits-all solutions don't work."