In the face of such tactics, school district officials will not just want to follow sound contracting and planning procedures, but be prepared to respond to commonly expressed concerns about privatization. There are straightforward and effective responses to the broad arguments usually posed against privatizing school support services. Consider the anti-privatization arguments below and the responses that follow.
The Claim That Private Firms Will Hire Unqualified Workers
First, a contractor has every incentive to hire the districts’ current employees because of their expertise and institutional knowledge. Such workers are unlikely to be “transient.” Moreover, districts often ask vendors to give preference to current employees when hiring new staff to provide services under the contract. That’s precisely what happened in Midland in 2007, and it is common in other districts as well.
Second, the bidding process can also include a consideration of the experience and qualifications of a private vendor’s staff. Firms proposing to use unqualified personnel can be dismissed from consideration long before a contract is awarded. A district with a well-written contract can also exercise a cancellation clause to penalize a contractor that violates a district’s personnel qualification requirements.
The Claim That Private Firms Will Hire Low-Wage Workers
The accusation that contractors pay low wages should be challenged with a comparative analysis. Vendors frequently offer to pay new employees wages that are identical to comparable public school employees’ wages.
The difference comes in the value of the employee benefits, such as pensions and health care benefits. Indeed, this area of public school personnel costs is so expensive and growing so rapidly that it may actually be the primary motive in districts’ decision to privatize. Bargaining units could probably pre-empt more competitive contracting initiatives by offering to give up their expensive benefit packages in favor of the more modest alternatives received by most private-sector workers.[liii]
The Claim That Private Firms Will Hire Dangerous Workers
The alleged risk to children from hiring a private vendor does not withstand scrutiny. Private vendors have no economic incentive to see children come to harm as a result of their or their employees’ actions. Quite the opposite is true; indeed, it’s difficult to imagine anything more damaging to a contractor’s business with its various public school clients than having a dangerous employee put a child at risk. Millions of dollars of business, potential lawsuits and even the company’s survival would be at stake.
Moreover, districts commonly emblazon security measures into RFPs and contracts. Some may demand that vendors conduct security measures at a level identical to or exceeding the district’s own requirements for its employees; the School Purchasing Pages RFP for transportation services, for instance, requires criminal background checks and alcohol and drug testing. Other districts may demand the right to conduct the security checks themselves with information provided by the vendor on each employee. In addition, districts can demand the right to have an employee removed from a site after the contract is in place.[liv]
Moreover, there is nothing inherent in public service or private employment that makes one person a better human being than another. There is no reason for private-sector workers to be impugned simply because they work for a private company.
Unions will seek out anecdotal evidence of wrongdoing by the employees of private vendors and try to build a case against privatization based on these examples. But similar examples abound for public school employees, and it is not hard to find them.[lv] District officials may be compelled to recite a few of these examples to remind residents that neither public- nor private-sector employees are unfailingly virtuous.
The Argument That Profit Does Not Belong in the Schools
Profit has been in the schools for a long time. Private firms have built schools, sold schools textbooks, sold schools classroom supplies and engaged in numerous other market transactions for years. All of this has been done at a profit. In a competitive environment, this profit has encouraged firms to provide better and lower-cost services to schools in ways that save money and benefit children. All of this private profit has occurred alongside the decades-long history of privatization of school support services discussed earlier in this primer.
The Argument That Privatization Has Failed Elsewhere
Privatization, like any other human enterprise, can fail. Moreover, contracts sometimes “fail” due to the militant opposition of those affected by it.
That some deals may sour, however, does not change the fact that most succeed. In fact, if officials follow basic guidelines of good contracting, they can increase the likelihood their contract will save the district money, improve service provision or both.
The overall success of contracting is borne out by the fact that it is increasing, rather than decreasing, among Michigan school districts. Recall that between 2001 and 2006, the number of Michigan school districts that contracted for food, busing or custodial services appears to have risen, reaching 37.7 percent in 2006 — roughly three in eight. Preliminary survey results suggest that number is likely to increase in 2007.[lvi] Moreover, recall that in the 2006 Mackinac Center survey, 74.5 percent of Michigan school districts that contract for food, bus or custodial services said that contracting had saved them money (20.2 percent were unsure, and only 3.4 percent said they had not saved money). Moreover, 90.9 percent of Michigan’s contracting districts said they were satified with the results of their contracting, while just 5.3 percent said they were not. Preliminary results in the 2007 survey indicate similar results.
And finally, despite the MEA’s declared opposition to contracting services with nondistrict employees, the MEA itself was discovered to be outsourcing food, custodial, security and mailing services at the union’s own headquarters in East Lansing in 1994. Three out of four of those contracts used nonunion labor.
The likely reason for the union’s decision to contract with other firms was rational self-interest. It probably saved the union money, improved the service received or added value in some other way. School districts presumably have the right to seek the same benefits on behalf of students and taxpayers.
[liii] Public school employee benefits will likely be the next big area of competitive contracting or of state‑mandated reform. Many districts simply will not be able to sustain the cost of paying school employee health care plans that are not just unusually generous, but even more unusually expensive.
[liv] Note that the question of removing and reassigning the employee will be the contractor’s responsibility. The district will not face the complaints that might have been made if a district employee were summarily removed from the workplace under similar circumstances.
[lv] See, for instance, the apparent failure of a Traverse City Area Public Schools bus driver to note that a 3-year-old had fallen asleep on the bus, so that the child was transported to the district garage, rather than the school (Christine Finger, "Mother Has Questions after Son Is Left on Bus," Traverse City Record Eagle, May 31, 2007, www.record-eagle.com/2007/may/31kidonbus.htm); similarly, a Gaylord Community Schools bus driver reportedly made several children leave the bus before their scheduled stop, despite the children’s protests that they did not know where they were (Sheri McWhirter, "Driver Forced Students Off Bus, Officials Say," Traverse City Record Eagle, June 11, 2006, www.record-eagle.com/2006/jun/11bus.htm).
[lvi] In addition, Mackinac Center researchers have noticed an apparent increase in nontraditional contracting, such as contracts for substitute teachers, athletic coaches or principals. In this way, too, privatization appears to be advancing as a management tool.