The Real Risk of Public-Private Partnerships in Education

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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.



  • The Same@

    “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.”

    Sounds a lot like you voucher program filtering money to Catholic schools.

    • OceanStateCurrent

      Not at all. Under a school choice program, parents’ options would be thrown wide open, and the decision makers would remain the families, not the private schools in cooperation with the government. The program moving through the Commerce Corp. follows a different model, in which the government gives families a very narrow opportunity to escape bad schools and uses that as a chance to shape the students according to the needs of a private business.

      The two are so different, I can only imagine that you’re somehow reading and typing with your eyes closed so as to avoid seeing it.

  • OceanStateCurrent

    Actually, vouchers should be legal in any state without a Blaine Amendments, including Rhode Island. Furthermore ESAs (such as the Center has proposed for Rhode Island) were designed in part to meet the constitutional challenge anyway, and they have done so according to the Arizona Supreme Court because they are completely neutral toward religion.

    You’re wrong. This model will be implemented because union-run public districts designed for the benefit of the adults working in them and the advancement of the union’s political agenda simply cannot perform. Rhode Islanders will only tolerate this abuse of their children until they realize there’s a real alternative.

    • Still Waiting

      “should”, “neutral toward religion”, “designed for the benefit of the adults working in them “, and the best… ” abuse of their children “? Good luck with that spin in court. When you come up with a legal alternative perhaps you will gain some traction. If you really want to improve the system and gain any credibility start from an education-centric perspective and not a cost savings one.

      I suggest you continue to do what you are best at focus on, public union bashing. At least you won’t be masking your real intentions and hiding behind what you claim is best for the children. You are really no better than the unions in that regard.

      • OceanStateCurrent

        Still waiting for what? The “censoring” that didn’t happen? I don’t censor substantive comments that meet a very minimal standard of civility.

        School choice is perfectly constitutional and has been proven so in court. End of story. And I do start with an education perspective. The service available to our children is unacceptable, and school choice would be the greatest advance in education and perhaps the greatest improvement of Rhode Island’s public policy ever.

  • OceanStateCurrent

    You can register without any kind of self-verification. All you need is an email account. That’s a very minimal level of control on our part.

    Parents who choose private schools wind up paying twice for education. That’s simply not fair. It’s also unreasonable to pretend that public schools don’t push a particular worldview. Even if we put aside the left-wing bias, a general education that excludes religion while still purporting to instill an understanding of ethics, etiquette, civics, and proper behavior inherently presents a worldview. That is, Catholic schools got nothin’ on public schools when it comes to pushing religion. They’re just more honest about it.

    If you want to talk about the rights of taxpayers to direct their own dollars, the only really fair move would be to stop funding education through government altogether. However, we have a civic interest in an educated society, so we should fund education, not a franchise of government-branded schools.

    And again, vouchers and ESAs are absolutely legal. If you want them to be illegal, you’ll have to change the state constitution.

    Finally, I don’t believe for a second that you’ll ever credit any data I provide as being objective.

    • Change of Pace

      Just out of curiosity, have you demanded that the schools you have selected for your children take the PARCC? After all, don’t you want the same accountability for all of your education dollars?

      • OceanStateCurrent

        No. I didn’t recommend that the RI public schools jump onto the PARCC bus or (even worse) the Common Core train. If NECAP needed tweaking it should have been tweaked, but this wholesale switching from one standard to another every 5 to 10 years is another bit of the evidence that government should not be running education.

        The more important point, though, is that I don’t support standardized testing as a necessary part of education qua education. In public schools, it’s a tool to impose SOME level of accountability, because the system is so tilted in favor of district spin, and parents have limited options. Probably the primary rationale for school choice (including private schools and homeschooling) is that it replaces the clunky standardized-testing means of accountability with a more elegant, personalized, and effective means of accountability — namely, the possibility that bad schools will lose customers and probability that good schools will gain them.

        The schools my children have attended have all had some degree of standardized testing to provide us with a benchmark, but more importantly, we’re able to assess how well they’re teaching our children in a much more direct way than the public or the government can assess children who are not their own in public schools, and if we’re not happy, we can change schools. The fact that we can do that, I’ve found, leads the schools to be much more responsive to concerns.

  • Philip Spadola

    “Parents who choose private schools wind up paying twice for education. That’s simply not fair.”

    Wrong. And it is fair.
    Non parents pay for education too. All of us pay for education, public education. If people such as yourself decide to pay for private education and that is your choice. I should not be made to pay for your choice. That is not fair.

    • OceanStateCurrent

      The fact that non-parents chip in for public education doesn’t mean it’s fair to charge parents the same bill during the years they’re funding children’s education by another means, just like we treat it as unfair to tax income that people donate to charity.

      And the idea that you’d be paying for my choice is absurd. For one thing, I’m reasonably confident that you think I should have to pay for health services for people with unhealthy lifestyles or social welfare for people who make career decisions with which I disagree. It’s only when it comes to education for children (giving them an escape route from unionized indoctrination mills) that you find yourself a libertarian.

      For another thing, it’s more than likely that any government subsidies for parents’ educational choices will be far outbalanced by the taxes that the family will pay toward education over the course of their lives. Even if it isn’t true that school choice funds are less than the taxes that a particular family pays in a year, they’ve got a lifetime of taxes to catch up. In other words, you’re not “paying for their choice.” That’s just a talking point, again, in support of unionized indoctrination mills.

  • Philip Spadola

    “The fact that non-parents chip in for public education doesn’t mean it’s fair to charge parents the same bill during the years they’re funding children’s education by another means, just like we treat it as unfair to tax income that people donate to charity.”

    If this sentence is an example and product of a public education, then I can understand your negative attitude towards public schools.

    Non parents do more more than “chip in” for public education. All of us pay taxes and collectively pay for public schools. All of us who pays taxes that support a community’s schools have the opportunity to elect school board members, to vote on budgets, and generally have a say in the functioning of our schools. If my taxes were to go to your children’s private schools would I have the same rights . I think not. Not fair.

    “Even if it isn’t true that school choice funds are less than the taxes that a particular family pays in a year, they’ve got a lifetime of taxes to catch up. In other words, you’re not “paying for their choice.””

    Under your center’s school choice scheme how much money in tax dollars would your neighbors have to give your family? In other words how much would we have to pay for your choice?

    • OceanStateCurrent

      My, my. Quick with the insults, huh, Phil? The fact that you don’t understand a sentence doesn’t mean it’s the writer’s education that should be challenged.

      “Chip in” is an entirely appropriate description. Parents funding private school tuition for their children spend an average of around $8,000 per year per child. By contrast, even though public schools tend to cost about twice that per student, local property tax payers probably provide somewhere between $5 and $15 per student in public school per year. That’s “chipping in” compared with the cost per student.

      The Center’s proposal (1) uses only state dollars, (2) is capped at $6,000, and (3) is income adjusted. That means that somewhere around every 10 Rhode Islanders would be contributing a combined one penny to the assistance for which my children will be eligible.

      Furthermore, the idea that the average voter has a say in public school governance ignores the reality of what a special-interest, union-dominated morass our government has become. With school choice, parents have an exponentially greater say in how their children’s schools operate, and I’d even argue that the average citizen has more influence than in the government schools. Private schools rely on results and reputation. Government schools are now designed to make accountability nearly impossible.

      I note, by the way, that you didn’t respond to the point that the only “choice” about which you’re concerned appears to be the one that helps children escape our failing government schools. Curious, that.

    • OceanStateCurrent

      A more-fundamental point that you skip over, however, is that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as funding government-branded schools that give the government control over education (that’s called indoctrination). Rather, the public interest that we’re funding is education, to expand our people’s opportunities and make us better citizens simply by the fact of being educated.

      Just as the government doesn’t perform every single service that its resources provides (such as trash collection or road repairs), education needn’t be performed by government employees, and if the system works better to allow the beneficiaries of that service to choose their provider, then that’s how it should be done.

      Funny, I bet you’d defend the idea that government employees should be able to receive stipends if they don’t take their employer’s health benefit package. Same concept… but again, your objection to choices is conspicuously narrow.

  • Philip Spadola

    “I note, by the way, that you didn’t respond to the point that the only “choice” about which you’re concerned appears to be the one that helps children escape our failing government schools. Curious, that.”

    I’m not concerned about parent’s choice when it comes to education. If parents decide not to take advantage of their local schools in favor of private schools or homeschooling I’m fine with that. In other words I support their right to do so. In some cases those parents can also take advantage of the public schools in their communities for activities that are not provided either at home or at their alternate choice of schools. I just do not want taxpayer money going to private schools at the expense of our public schools. Your mention of the government services that are now done without government’s employees got me thinking about which ones I would absolutely not want to be outsourced to private companies and that would include education as well as policing and firefighting. You reveal your distaste for public education with phrases such as “Government schools” and “unionized indoctrination mills” and I certainly don’t trust you look out for interests of others in this regard. You seem to have a major conflict of interest in the case of pushing your center’s scheme. as you would directly benefit at the expense of your community.

    • OceanStateCurrent

      I see how this works. Agreeing with you, everything is possible. Disagreeing with you is always a conflict of interest. If I don’t agree with the use to which people put publicly subsidized welfare or healthcare, that’s too bad, but the fact that you don’t want to give poor and working class families an opportunity to choose their children’s schools means it would be unfair to you in all your privilege.

      It’s not “at the expense of public schools.” The public schools save resources because less is given to the families than is reduced in taxpayer funding. More important, it’s to the benefit of families, because public schools tend to improve in an environment of real competition.

      Funny, too, that you don’t trust me to “look out for interests of others in this regard,” yet my entire political philosophy is that everybody should have LESS ability to use government to force people to do things. Similarly, you think it’s a conflict of interest that my family would get a small discount through school choice programs, but I suspect you don’t see a conflict of interest in teachers, firefighters, police, and other public employees voting on budgets and electing the very people with whom they’ll negotiate… like the District 11 Democrat, Jim Seveney, whose wife is a public school teacher nearing retirement. No conflict there! But try to afford others an opportunity to get out from under the thumb of big government, and one’s motives are always suspect.

      So tell us, Phil: What’s your direct benefit from Rhode Island’s corrupt system? Or do you not see how you’ve been fooled into supporting a system that does the opposite of what you want it to do?

  • Philip Spadola

    “So tell us, Phil: What’s your direct benefit from Rhode Island’s corrupt system? ”

    Easy. None. No one benefits from political corruption except those who participate in specific corrupt acts..

    “I suspect you don’t see a conflict of interest in teachers, firefighters, police, and other public employees voting on budgets and electing the very people with whom they’ll negotiate… like the District 11 Democrat, Jim Seveney, whose wife is a public school teacher nearing retirement.”

    I don’t see any conflict of interest in taxpayers voting on budgets that they will be helping to fund. In the case of someone running for office whose spouse works as a public employee and may be affected by future legislation or labor negotiations, I think the voters should have that information of a potential conflict of interest before they cast their ballots. And when I write voters and taxpayers I include all who qualify. I would not exclude police, firefighters and teachers or other public employees as you would. In your way of thinking it would be a conflict of interest for Jim Seveney to cast a vote for himself in an election. So much for the freedom part of your outfit’s name.

    • OceanStateCurrent

      You miss the point. I’m not saying those employees shouldn’t be excluded from the civic process (although I think they should be excluded from building a parallel government via labor unions. You noted my conflict of interest, which barely registers in comparison with employees’.

      To change direction a little, why do you think the government should be in the business of funding education in the first place?

  • Philip Spadola

    “why do you think the government should be in the business of funding education in the first place?”

    I think that government as expressed through the will of the people have concluded that an educated population is essential to our society. The benefits to all of us far outweigh the cost in taxes used for the purpose of educating all the children. If the benefits of an educated citizenry and the contributions possible from the children of poor and working class families
    doesn’t convince you, then think of the cost associated with crime and incarceration which is about eight times as high as the average cost of public education per student. Government (we the people) have an interest in a citizenry that tries to live up to our ideals. Promoting diversity, respect for but not an endorsement of religion, a rational and fact based understanding our world will serve this generation well as they move into what is now a global community. That is what public schools aspire to and we should fund those efforts.

    • OceanStateCurrent

      So the objective is an educated population. What if some children — for whatever reason — will do better receiving education services from non-governmental organizations?

  • Philip Spadola

    “So the objective is an educated population. What if some children — for whatever reason — will do better receiving education services from non-governmental organizations?”

    I agree that some children can be educated outside public classrooms. Think of it this way . Why should your neighbors pay their taxes to receive government services they do not directly use such as police and fire protection and also see their taxes go to your use of what you consider better services like armed guards and sprinkler systems. You can choose to pay for enhanced protection and no one will stop you ,but do you think it is fair for others to pay for it. Your decision not to take advantage of the educational services that your community provides to you and your family is why you find yourself with an additional bill to pay. But I am glad that we at least agree that we are better off with an educated population.

    • OceanStateCurrent

      I’d dispute your comparisons for two reasons.

      1. Emergency services are different from education, in that nobody needs them until they do. The rationale for funding education is that everybody should be educated early in life. It’s a relatively predictable need over a relatively predictable span without real emergency.
      2. Even so, if there were some technology or service that would ensure that I would never require fire protection for my house, wouldn’t it make sense for some portion of the money set aside for the protection of my property to be returned to me to offset the cost of that service? Again, the objective isn’t to operate a fire department, but to keep people and their property safe.

      Based on your response, I also wonder what you think of the severely disabled students who receive their education services from very-expensive private schools at public expense. Should their home-districts hire the necessary specialists and stop paying for outside services?

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