Innovation by Economic Darwinism

by Jeffry R. Fisher

Philosophy, academic specialization, and subjective quality are not the only defining characteristics of a private school. We can expect education delivery to diversify in structure as well, perhaps stretching our definition of "school".

Big versus Niche

In a free market, schools will grow largest by catering to the center of the bell curve, but there's also competitive advantage to small specialists structuring themselves to serve various niche groups. Some may combine school with room and board to handle orphans, isolated families, or merely to gather any widely scattered special interest group in a large enough number to serve efficiently. Other schools may invest in special facilities to handle various disabilities and discipline problems. Still other educators might operate as free agents, perhaps even making house calls.

By freeing educators to structure their operations in various ways, school privatization would allow us to discover both better ways to deliver education, and multiple ways to serve different needs. Only if the government is idiotic enough to force all schools into one mold to be all things to all people would we end up with a system as wasteful and ineffective as we suffer today.

Core Curriculum versus Extracurricular

If the privatization scholarship (or allowed tax credit) is more than the cost of core curriculum somewhere, then the balance could be spent elsewhere, like for piano lessons, driving lessons, independent sports clubs etc. Instead of large centralized schools that try to be everything, we could get fragmentation into different arenas such as 3R's, culture, sports and trade skills.

Transportation barriers would often motivate various providers to collocate, so you might see "schools" form like neighborhood shopping centers with a large main unit surrounded by smaller, independently owned units, the same way that supermarkets are surrounded by video, pizza, and dry-cleaning shops.

Rating and Categorizing Schools/Educators

Because many parents are too busy to analyze school options themselves, I expect that consumer advocates will spring up everywhere to rate each area's schools and to catalogue their special features. If it's possible to drive into a strange state and find a 3-star hotel or restaurant while motoring on a freeway, then it will be possible for parents to find the 3-star (or better) schools in their own neighborhoods.

If privatization comes to your city or state, and if you are concerned that a ratings service isn't springing up, then instead of complaining, seize the opportunity to both serve your community and make a profit at the same time.

Employment Can (and Probably Will) Be Restructured Too

Schools competing on quality will need to offer higher salaries, more attractive work environments, and other benefits (like stock options) to lure the best and brightest professionals into teaching. To boost the productivity of their highly compensated professors, schools might leverage teacher expertise over multiple classrooms by having lower paid assistants handle mundane chores that today's teachers are forced handle themselves.

It's possible that the adult with whom kids bond as "their teacher" will not even be the high salary teacher with all of the expensive education, but rather a lower-paid, less-educated classroom monitor under the direction of a professorial "master teacher" who lectures and directs several classrooms.

Taking that a step further, professionals could leverage their expertise much, much more by distributing lessons on DVDs or cable TV accompanied by tests and trainers disguised as entertaining computer games. Remember "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?"?

Modernizing Schedule

Why are we stuck with schools that kick kids loose in the mid afternoon whose parent(s) are still working? In a free market, working parents could choose schools that entertain kids until drive time.

Why are we stuck with a system geared to the agrarian calendar from 165 years ago? In a free market, some schools would offer a calendar balanced around the year with short breaks in all seasons instead of just one giant one in the summer. There might be more weeks of education in that year, but not necessarily. Regardless, kids would no longer have twelve weeks to forget everything they knew at the end of the prior year.

But, summer vacation would still be available for those who prefer it. Best of all, the balance between schools offering the different plans would be driven by demand in each community. There'd be no need to agitate for or against reform, and there'd probably be some of each so few would be stuck with something they don't want.

Creative Transportation Solutions

The current system employs hundreds of thousands of drivers driving thousands of buses costing billions of dollars per year nationally. Transport sucks down about 5% of the bloated education budgets each year. Can privatization help? With an end to one-style-fits-all central control, there will be diversification, experimentation, evolution, and specialization.

Just because the current government system owns and maintains its own buses and pays its own drivers to move kids daily doesn't mean that it's the only way or even the most economical way. Once parents are presented with the trade off between housing, transport and academics, they may well choose a different solution.

Rural: In a few years, rural schools might end up looking very different than what we see today, evolving largely to handle low pop density and its attendant transportation issues. I can't predict exactly what will happen, but the beauty of free markets is that nobody needs to plan every detail in advance.

We need only know that thousands of entrepreneurs and millions of parents will make hundreds of millions of decisions from which will emerge the strongest forms that prove their worth in each environment. No (mortal) central control can possibly do as well. However, without predicting what will prevail, this mortal will offer a few hints to some of the directions that future entrepreneurs might try:

Between them, providers and parents will figure out whether it is economically preferable to transport children to school, deliver education to students, combine students of different ages, and/or to house students at school. The prevailing solution(s) in any area will depend on its culture. In any given area, there will probably be a mix, depending on what various families' priorities are.

A family in nowhere Alaska that wants its kids to learn Russian from age 5 might be willing to board them quarterly at a special school in the lower 48 (or even in Russia... if that's what they want, then why not?) Their nearest neighbor might value togetherness more and choose a one-room schoolhouse mixing 12 grades because it is close enough to commute. Others in the region might trust video and software enough to keep their kids home.

Transporting students might happen daily, weekly, or perhaps less often, depending on distances involved. Transport could be left to parents, it could be provided by schools, it could be provided by third parties specializing in moving many students to and between many schools, or it could just fall on general purpose transport.

If some specialization is more important than distance, then a parent may send a student (perhaps at the student's request!) somewhere to get it. Remember Hogwart's? If housing at school, some kids might go home every weekend, others only between terms. Boarding strategy will probably be age sensitive. Kindergarteners will be more likely to stay close to mother (or father) unless orphaned. High school students will be more likely to travel, even wanting to get away from parents and begin to form their own round-the-clock communities possibly centered on common fields of study. The odds are that many ideas will be tried, and more than one will be profitable enough to serve separate groups of families who have different priorities.

Combining Commutes

If you work for a large company, your employer might install a school open to its employees' children. You would be able to commute together with your children. Your kids' friends would be your co-workers' kids, which is good if you and your coworkers have formed a dispersed community. You could have lunch with your children (and their friends) "at school" any day you wanted. That probably wouldn't thrill teens, but younger kids wouldn't mind. Also, you could see your kid's teachers more often.

The workplace school could double as day care and be extended to supervise kids and help them with homework in the late afternoon or even later if parents need to work overtime. Overtime is never a hearth and home family experience, but at least this way you could have dinner with your kids and know that they weren't home alone while you finished work. A quality indicator would be whether the school was good enough for the CEO's kids. Such a collocated school could be a strong employee retention tool.

So Many Choices!

"Like many of the Libertarian stances, this assumes I have near infinite time and resources to do the research I would need to make an intelligent decision."

No, it doesn't. It assumes that enough people are willing to pay enough for the information that a few others will do the research and sell their evaluations. Like movie, hotel, and restaurant reviews, educators can be ranked and the reviewers can develop good or bad reputations for their objectivity.

While we have a use for dedicated reviewers, they do not need to be government agents. When government gets involved, then political agendas will replace objectivity and you'll be left doing your own research (or getting screwed) anyway.

Miscellaneous Ideas:

Not every school need be a for-profit business. Churches and other NPO's could set up their own schools. For millions, choosing a parochial school will no longer be a dilemma between money and faith.

Convenience: We may see a larger number of smaller schools conveniently located.

Advertising: Some schools, especially chains, may resort to advertising of various kinds, and it may descend into catchy jingles and memorable slogans. However, I don't think it will become as bad as with fast food or beer. Education will be a larger, less frequent purchasing decision, not an impulse buy.

There will be innovations I can't predict. The strong will survive, and the weak will be forced adopt their superior practices, come up with something even better, or go out of business and be replaced. A competitive marketplace is a dynamic selection mechanism vastly superior to any central authority short of God almighty. If you don't believe that, then please move to a country that already has a centrally planned economy. Authoritarians have many countries from which to choose, but the US is the last, best hope that we Libertarians have left; please don't ruin it for us.

It's Time to be Creative

There are some small scale pilot systems in place, and they are shaming the public schools. The tide is turning. Put on your futurist, lateral thinking cap and use your imagination. Can you think of some other ways that private enterprise might become creative with either the form or substance of schools? Write to me with your ideas, and I may put them into either this or my Diversification essay. (Contact info on the website URL at the top of this article - Ed.)

Start thinking more of how to make it work instead of how it might not, because school privatization is coming, and, for the sake of the next generation, we need to make it work, not make it fail.

Copyright 2009 by Jeffry R. Fisher: Permission is granted to reproduce this article in whole, but only in combination with attribution, the original title, the original URL, and this copyright notice.

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