In the more-feverish segments of the political right, where organizations like the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity are seen as part of some big-government conspiracy (stop laughing), the notion of public-private partnerships (P3s) has become a metonym for a global conspiracy of the elite across government and business.
A metonym is a word or phrase that is substituted for an associated concept, typically something tangible for something abstract or more complex. The State House can be a metonym for the government of the state, for example. Somebody who is distraught might turn to “the bottle,” which is a metonym for alcohol in its form as a reality-altering drug, with all of the complicated associations and behaviors it entails.
Thus, as a metonym, “public-private partnership” has come to mean the sly takeover of our economy and all society by a cabal of government officials and private corporate executives in a conspiracy against the rights of the global population. What the folks in the fever swamps miss is that bottles can hold things other than alcohol, and the fact that an activity involves both the government and a private organization at some point in the process need not imply a conspiracy. One can fill a bottle with milk, and one can design a P3 that expands freedom.
The two areas this tends to come up with reference to the Center are the RhodeWorks alternative and school choice. When it comes to the infrastructure plan, the current process is that the state government takes our money (much of it indirectly, through the federal government) or puts us in massive amounts of debt, performs some organization and design work (often hiring private engineering contractors), and then hires a private-sector contractor to do the job. All the P3 PayGo model that the Center proposed would change is that the state would pick certain projects (potentially including maintenance) and commit a steady funding stream. The “partnership” is that a private company would bear the risk of getting its projections right and entering into debt, if necessary. There is no new encroachment on the rights of the people.
When it comes to school choice, the current process is that local, state, and federal governments take our money and run an expensive, inefficient, and largely unsuccessful unionized school system, and the only way for families to choose which particular schools their children attend is to move to particular neighborhoods. I’m not sure how one could get more intrusive, extortionate, or limiting than that. The type of school choice that the Center has proposed would simply transfer a portion of the money confiscated from taxpayers to the families to help them choose any schools that they’d prefer.
The current system is as if the government were to operate farms and other means of food producers in order to supply the poor with sustenance. One can disagree with the specifics of a food stamp program, but it’d be weird to argue that moving from socialism to food stamps would be a new limit on people’s rights or expansion of the government’s scope.
I bring this up because there’s an excellent contrary example in today’s Providence Journal via a Kate Bramson article titled “R.I. Commerce board OK’s education initiative P-TECH.” Basically, the quasi-public Commerce Corp. will provide a couple of years of funding for a few public school districts to start special schools drawing students from across the state into a six-year program that would leave them with associates degrees and sets of skills narrowly tailored to the needs of specific companies that have partnered with the government schools for that purpose. This is a P3 of the global-conspiracy metonym variety.
The government confiscates money from the people of the state and filters it through a quasi-public, which is defined by the lessened control that the public has over it, which in turn gives it to a few government schools over which only a small percentage of Rhode Islanders have any electoral authority. Private companies then come in with somewhat exclusive rights to have the schools train students on the public dime, starting when they’re around 14 years old, specifically for the jobs that they think they’re going to need to fill.
It’s telling that two of the quasi-public’s board of directors had to recuse themselves from a relevant vote because they intend to use the program for their companies’ benefit.
The reality is that some kind of public-private partnership is coming to education whether people of a certain political philosophy like it or not. Families are demanding options other than their unimpressive public schools, but the voting public still believes that government has a role ensuring that education is funded. The question is whether families can direct their children’s education given their own unique circumstances, hopes, and dreams (within some basic parameters for what counts as education), or whether the government and private companies will work together to shape the public in a way that serves their hopes and dreams.