When the socialist economies of the Soviet bloc disintegrated in the 1980s, the cause was evident to nearly everyone: the stifling directives of central planning had all but obliterated individual initiative and accountability. The cure was just as obvious: a healthy dose of entrepreneurship and private enterprise.
That lesson is relevant to today’s debate over education reform in America, though it’s a lesson still ignored by too many of the “reformers.” The reform debate is cluttered with proposals for top-down mandates and directives that start from the implicit premise that teachers must be lifetime government employees and must be told what to do. If the new leaders of the Soviet bloc had simply replaced old central plans with new ones, without creating markets or empowering private citizens to be their own bosses, we would hardly call the result “reform” at all.
The most promising models for improving education are those that would infuse the virtues of the marketplace into the education system—and in a way that inspires teachers. One particular reform idea that would help accomplish that is the subject of a new report issued jointly in Michigan by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Reason Foundation, titled Teacher, Inc.: A Private Practice Option for Educators. The report’s author, Janet Beales, makes a powerful case for teachers as classroom entrepreneurs. In those places where it has already taken root, it is showing the potential to transform the way education is delivered and the careers of tens of thousands of teachers. Known as “private-practice teaching,” it requires a lot of creativity and willingness to break with the status quo on the part of union leadership, school administrators, teachers themselves, legislators, and the general public.
Private-practice teachers are professional educators who provide their services to schools on a contract basis. Instead of being an employee of a school district—subject to all its rules and suffocating bureaucracy—a teacher can be owner of a professional practice or employed by a private educational service firm. It’s not for every teacher—and certainly not for the risk-averse—because a private-practice teacher effectively gives up the safety net of district employment, collective bargaining, and tenure. But for those teachers who yearn to drive their own careers and have good ideas to market, the entrepreneurial freedom this option offers can be the liberating stimulus they’ve been looking for.
Beales paints a picture of many different forms of private-practice teaching. Imagine English teachers forming English instruction firms or science teachers offering innovative methods of science pedagogy under the banner, “Science Teachers, Incorporated.” Teachers in private practice could contract with schools or school districts to provide specialized instruction in remedial education or foreign languages. They could tutor students with special needs one at a time or teach entire classrooms. Some teachers might want to run their own business, taking on the dual responsibilities of teacher and business manager, while others would want to focus strictly on teaching by working for an established education company—perhaps even a company started by colleagues or local parents.
Still others might specialize in training teachers to teach—with more incentive for better results than we now get from the education departments of state universities. In any event, private-practice educators who do a good job will find their services in demand and their contracts renewed, while those who perform poorly at least would not be perpetual burdens on both children and taxpayers.
For freedom advocates, it doesn’t matter where one stands on vouchers, tuition tax credits, and other prickly issues of government’s role or private versus public schooling. Private-practice teaching can be an improvement for any educational environment. It can begin to create real markets for teaching—and all the dynamics that real markets promote on behalf of excellence and customer service. Free markets for teachers who compete and innovate and sell their services to customers might make it easier to achieve free markets for schools too.
Teachers as entrepreneurs in a competitive education marketplace is a vision that many accustomed to the status quo will find difficult to accept. Pointing the way, however, are successful examples from around the country. Educator Robin Gross of Bethesda, Maryland started Science Encounters more than a decade ago and now employs 20 full and part-time teachers who provide hands-on learning programs to private and public elementary schools in and around the nation’s capital. Former tutor Evelyn Peter-Lawshé started Reading and Language Arts Centers in 1991 and now serves over 800 clients in the Detroit area, teaching students and training teachers who earn continuing education credits in the process. Sylvan Learning Systems provides tutoring, testing, and test-preparation courses to students through more than 500 franchised and company-owned centers in the United States and Canada, according to Beales. Other examples are appearing on the educational scene now with regularity.
If you think teacher unions will never buy into the concept of allowing schools to contract out to private companies, it might be useful to consider a lesson from my state of Michigan. The Michigan Education Association (MEA) represents most public school teachers and many school janitors and food service workers in the state. It publicly opposes any kind of privatization, but in its own headquarters in East Lansing, the MEA contracts out for such services as food, custodial, mailing, and security—and usually with non-union private companies!
When the most powerful state teacher union organization in America practices “privatization,” a new awakening may be taking place. Reformers have a powerful rhetorical opportunity here—either we can persuade the MEA and its like-minded sister unions in other states of their hypocrisy when they oppose privatization, or we can drive home the point to teachers and parents that the unions don’t really have their interests foremost in mind after all. Trimming the privileged sails of coercive teacher unions, in any event, may be inescapably necessary on the path to liberating teachers themselves.
One size doesn’t fit all teachers. A lifetime of public employment in the conventional setting of bureaucracy and politics need not be the only option. For those teachers who want new professional opportunities and for children who would benefit from educators animated with new incentives, private-practice teaching is a reform idea whose time has come.