Who should manage the growing diversity of learning options in public education?

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of “A Choice Conversation,” an ongoing dialogue between Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up for Students and a redefinED host, and John Wilson, a former NEA leader who writes the Unleashed blog at Education Week.

Doug Tuthill: John, in our last exchange you called “for a new contracting arrangement for providers to serve the unique educational needs of targeted student populations and innovation.”

Floridians have heeded your advice and are expanding options for educators and families through innovative public-private partnerships. For example, the Okaloosa school district contracted with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to run Florida’s best aeronautics high school institutes. The Florida Virtual School contracts with Connections Academy to operate its K-5 program, and last year the Duval County school district contracted with local churches to implement programs for suspended students. The Pinellas County teachers union has a corporate subsidiary that contracts with its school board to tutor students; career academies throughout Florida contract for services from a plethora of businesses and trade associations; and the state’s charter schools, Voluntary Pre-K program, McKay Scholarships and tax credit scholarships are all implemented through public-private partnerships, as are many magnet schools.

Managing all these public-private partnerships is challenging, and you’ve suggested using the “institution of public schools” as the oversight entity. I’m curious what you mean by the term “institution of public schools.” I’m also interested in your criteria for distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable public-private contracts.

John Wilson: Doug, I guess you could say I am a traditionalist when it comes to describing the institution of public schools, but I am an innovator when it comes to expanding the providers of customized education for targeted students and innovation.

I see the district board of education as the “traffic cop” for assuring that all providers, whether charters, private, or public-private, operate within a contract signed by the board of education and the provider. The “traffic cop” should assure that providers meet their fiduciary responsibility, improve student achievement, and adhere to the relevant laws and regulations as well as the contract that was signed with the board of education. I think the community needs to know these arrangements are cost-efficient and effective with their tax dollars and that their children are receiving a high-quality education. Let me add that I am not so naive as to know that we will need to build, and in some cases rebuild, trust and a shared vision with all parties that provide education opportunities.

Doug Tuthill: John, customization is creating more pluralism in public education, and this expanding diversity does need to be properly regulated. I agree local school boards should provide the bulk of this regulatory oversight, but some oversight should also be located at the state level.

For example, the Florida Virtual School is a statewide program, as is dual enrollment. Having 67 different Florida school boards regulate these state programs makes no sense. There is a reason the federal government – and not the states – regulates interstate commerce.

We’re setting up local school boards for failure when we ask them to regulate schools while simultaneously owning and managing schools. The FAA doesn’t own and manage airlines, the FDA doesn’t own and run pharmaceutical companies, and the FCC doesn’t own and manage broadcast networks. School boards should regulate schools, but educators should own and manage schools, just as doctors own and manage doctor offices, lawyers own and run law firms, and journalists run public television and radio. We need to stop treating educators like second-class professionals.

John Wilson: Doug, I agree that appropriate state or federal regulators may need to provide oversight to providers that cross district or state lines, but I also want a local board of education to be aware of the education situation for every child living in its district. That is new, but with technology, it is doable. Some entity has to be responsible for the education of our children or we will have messy situations. A local board of education should be best equipped. 

Your analogy of private sector businesses that need regulating to protect the public’s interest does not rise to the needs of educating our children, a primary responsibility of our government that needs oversight by the public. Neither would I advocate that model for private education providers. I am holding out for redefining and/or expanding the role of a local board of education as the primary but not exclusive regulator of education of the children in each district. That redefinition may mean that they are not the owners or managers of schools. I see a lot of innovative opportunities for education entrepreneurs like teacher-led schools. Let the innovation begin.