When the socialist economies of Eastern Europe disintegrated, the cause was evident to nearly everyone: the stifling directives of central planning had all but obliterated individual initiative and accountability. The cure was just as obvious: a healthy dose of entrepreneurship and private enterprise.

That lesson is relevant to today's debate over public education reform in America, though it's a lesson still ignored by many of the reformers. The reform debate is cluttered with proposals for top-down mandates and directives that start from the implicit premise that teachers must be told what to do. If the new leaders of Eastern Europe had simply replaced old central plans with new ones without creating markets or empowering either public employees or private citizens, we would hardly call it "reform" at all.

The most promising models for improving education are those that would infuse marketplace virtues into the education system-and in a way that inspires teachers and students. One such reform idea is the subject of a recent report from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, titled Teacher, Inc.: A Private Practice Option for Educators.

The report's author, Janet Beales of the Reason Foundation, makes a powerful case for teachers as classroom entrepreneurs. Known as "private-practice teaching," it requires little new legislation but a lot of creativity and willingness to break with the status quo on the part of unions, school administrators, teachers themselves, and the general public.

Private-practice teachers are professional educators who provide their services to schools on a contract basis. Instead of being employees of a school district-subject to all its rules and suffocating bureaucracy-teachers can be owners of a professional practice or employed by a private educational service firm. It's not for every teacher, and certainly not for the risk-averse, because a private-practice teacher gives up the safety net of district employment, collective bargaining, and tenure. But for those who yearn to drive their own careers and have good ideas to market, the entrepreneurial freedom this option offers can be the liberating stimulus they've been looking for.

Imagine English teachers forming English instruction firms or science teachers offering innovative methods of pedagogy under the banner, "Science Teachers, Incorporated." Teachers in private practice could contract with schools or school districts to provide specialized instruction in remedial education or foreign languages. They could tutor students with special needs one at a time or teach entire classrooms. Some teachers might want to run their own business, taking on the dual responsibilities of teacher and business manager, while others would want to focus strictly on teaching by working for an established education company-perhaps even a company started by colleagues or local parents.

Still others might specialize in training teachers to teach-with more incentive for better results than we now get from the education departments of state universities. Private-practice educators who do a good job will find their services in demand and their contracts renewed, and those who perform poorly would not be perpetual burdens on children and taxpayers.

Most schools willing to consider contracting with private-practice teachers will probably find the concept useful as a complement to, not a substitute for, full-time staff. Michigan's new charter schools, given their inherent entrepreneurial nature, may be the most fertile ground for the private practice option.

Pointing the way are successful examples from around the country. Educator Robin Gross of Bethesda, Maryland started Science Encounters a decade ago and now employs 20 full and part-time teachers who provide hands-on learning programs to private and public elementary schools in and around the nation's capital. Right here in Michigan, Evelyn Peter-Lawshé's Reading and Language Arts Centers serve over 800 clients in the Detroit area, teaching students and training teachers who earn continuing education credits in the process.

For private-practice teaching to become a major force in Michigan education, those on the front lines must open their minds and work to encourage it. Most importantly, that means new thinking within the teacher union leadership. Freeing individual teachers to put their entrepreneurial talents to work would provide an interesting test of just who the union really works for-teachers or itself. The Michigan Education Association-the state's largest teacher union-already contracts out with non-union companies for services at its head offices.

One size doesn't fit all teachers. A lifetime of public employment in a conventional setting need not be the only option. For those teachers who want new professional opportunities and for children who would benefit from educators animated with new incentives, private-practice teaching is an idea worth pursuing in many school districts.