The landscape of public education in Michigan has changed dramatically over the last 13 years. Most districts receive a majority of their operating money from state government, not local taxes. Charter schools and nearby districts lure students away from local schools and capture the state money that goes with them. Districts are even subject to new reporting and student testing mandates, with the results available in seconds through the Internet from almost anywhere in the nation.

School districts have thus been forced to stand out from their neighbors, particularly through academic quality, the one product everyone expects schools to produce and the one quality everyone tries to quantify. Districts with unexceptional academic results are less likely to attract students, balance budgets and placate legislators.

In this environment, privatization is a simplifier. The day-to-day responsibilities of transporting students, feeding them or keeping their schools clean are delegated to private firms that can be penalized or fired for failure, even as other firms wait to fill the breach. District officials become freer to help teachers with the difficult but central job of academic improvement and discovery.

This does not mean that privatization ends the need to supervise noninstructional services. Contract specifications, bidding procedures, bid evaluations and contract monitoring require time and discipline. But with privatization of major noninstructional services in Michigan now occurring in three school districts in eight, and with most of the contracting districts claiming cost savings and satisfaction, the potential of privatization to liberate district resources for academic pursuits seems clear. Districts that explore contracting may discover not only a better business plan, but a new commitment to their mission as well.