Substituting the Private for the Public

Kelly Services has partnered with Detroit Public Schools to help locate substitute teachers.

Can the private sector solve some of the problems facing the nation's public schools? The success of the Kelly Educational Staffing program indicates that the answer is yes.

Facing a shortage of substitute teachers, public school districts across the nation have begun to look to the private sector for help. In Metro Detroit, some public schools have enlisted the help of Kelly Services, a Fortune 500 temporary employment agency. With over 1,800 offices in 19 countries, Kelly Services locates more than 750,000 employees each year for a wide range of jobs.

If the search for substitute teachers can be successfully privatizedthat is, actually work better under private managementthis raises an important question: How much of the rest of what public schools do would work better privatized?

As part of a national effort, the Troy, Michigan-based agency has established the Kelly Educational Staffing program, which advertises open positions in both public and private schools, interviews applicants, and trains substitute teachers for grades K-12. To ensure that the substitutes are qualified, Kelly Services conducts background and reference checks on each applicant, and it insists that they meet local certification requirements. The agency also provides substitutes with a handbook and other orientation materials.

According to The Detroit News, the shortage of substitute teachers in Metro Detroit mirrors a national problem. Around 96,000 teachers are absent from schools across the nation each day, and there are not enough qualified substitutes to meet this demand on a regular basis. Surveys indicate that over 90 percent of the nation's school districts struggle to locate substitutes.

The shortage has arisen because many substitutes have taken full-time positions or have quit teaching altogether. Additionally, the strong economy has presented substitutes with more lucrative opportunities in the private sector, leading officials to turn to that same sector for help.

"I'll try anything and anybody who can find substitutes for us," Sue Kenyon, superintendent of Dearborn Heights District No. 7, told the News. "We have been short of substitute teachers every day this year."

Although the partnership between Kelly Services and public schools developed only recently, the success of the program already has become apparent. By allowing Kelly to search for and train substitute teachers, school districts can avoid these administrative tasks, saving both time and money.

"The program is win-win for everyone," said Teresa Setting, director of Kelly Services Product Management. "With one call to their local branch office, school administrators can find the substitute teachers they need.

"Because our expertise is staffing, Kelly can find and manage more eligible candidates than schools can alone," she added.

"Initially, it will cost the districts more," Kim Osborne, a spokeswoman for Kelly, told The Detroit News. "But in the long run, they will see savings."

School officials who have become involved with the program agree with these positive assessments.

"Before Kelly, we had two primary problems," said Carlos Hicks, superintendent of the Gulfport, Mississippi, district where Kelly first provided its substitute service in 1997. "We couldn't find enough substitute teachers, and we were spending too much of our limited time contacting and scheduling substitute teachers. We have been pleased with both the quality and quantity of substitute teachers Kelly has provided. It has worked better than we ever could have imagined."

Critics of private involvement in public education commonly claim that a for-profit organization will sacrifice standards to ensure a profit. Kelly Services deflects this fear by pointing out that its rigorous candidate screening, orientation, and training programs have been developed by school officials themselves.

"Our orientation process and quality control measures, developed with the schools, ensure [that] only the most qualified substitute teachers end up in front of children," Setting said.

In fact, the economic nature of the partnership supplies an incentive for quality that is increasingly lacking in the current market for substitute teachers. Right now, the shortage of substitutes is so acute and chronic that instead of scrutinizing candidates, districts facing shortages may make decisions out of desperation. Indeed, some districts seeking substitutes even have resorted to hiring parents or people with no more qualifications than a high school diploma.

"The main goal is often to get a warm body in there," Max Longhurst, an education specialist with Utah State University's Substitute Teacher Institute, told USA Today.

If the search for substitute teachers can be successfully privatized—that is, actually work better under private management—this raises an important question: How much of the rest of what public schools do would work better privatized?

School districts oversee a number of services-from payroll administration to cafeteria management-for which a private agency could assume responsibility. By privatizing these functions, school districts could focus more clearly on their primary objective: educating children.

James Roberts is education policy researcher and writer and an attorney with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He graduated from the Cornell School of Law in 1999.