Last month, when Los Angeles voted for a major experiment in outsourcing the management of public schools, it was sold under the banner of parental empowerment and school choice. Unfortunately, outsourcing public school management has never worked as a strategy for school reform, and LA’s experiment is already showing why. The first draft of the rules for the policy, just released earlier this month, make it clear that school choice — which is the only real form of parental empowerment — was never part of the plan in L.A.
The Los Angeles Board of Education voted 6-1 on Aug. 25 to put the management of up to 250 public schools out for bid to non-profit organizations. School reformers rightly touted the move as an open admission that the government monopoly status quo is a failure, and as yet another sign of the increasing turn against the teacher unions on the political left.
Earlier that day, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, stood outside the school district’s offices and told 2,000 charter school parents and other supporters that “we’re here today to stand up for our children.” Standing under a banner reading “Parent Revolution,” the name of an organization backed by charter organizers, he said: “I am pro-union but I am pro-parent as well. If workers have rights, then parents ought to have rights too.”
For good measure, he added: “This school board understands that parents are going to have a voice.”
So somehow, people got the crazy idea from all this that the reform in question involved school choice and empowering parents. “We are here to support parents’ ability to make choices,” said one parent attending the rally.
That parent got the wrong idea. The policy before the school board that day had nothing to do with school choice. It only said that contracts to manage schools could be bid out to non-profits. And bidding out the management of public schools without changing the underlying dynamic of the system has always proven to be a recipe for failure in the past.
Improving public schools by bidding out the management contract is like trying to improve a baseball team with an incompetent owner by changing the team manager. As long as you have the wrong guy in the head office, you won’t get real change because no matter how good the management is, it always has to answer to the dunce at the top. To turn the team around, you need a change of ownership, not a change of management.
The same goes for schools. Right now, the government monopoly owns all public schools. Nothing major will change until we get new owners — namely parents, via school choice.