Is private better than public for schools?

09 Oct 2010

 'Can the private sector approach deliver better outcomes for schools than the public sector approach?'. That was the question set for a experts at The  Education Project conference in Bahrain.

The panel had a heavy slant towards the USA, so discussion inevitably drew heavily on the charter schools v. public school districts debate. But the issue was relevant for countries like England and Sweden where governments have been encouraging outside school providers to compete with the public authorities.

The panel included three private (but non-profit) groups which are providing charter schools in the USA, represented by:

  • Mike Feinberg. Co-founder, KIPP Schools.
  • Marco Petruzzi, CEO Green Dot Schools.  
  • James Willcox, CEO,  Aspire Public Schools.

 Also on the panel were:

  • Christine Gilbert, Head of Ofsted, UK.
  • Ralph Tabberer, Chief Schools Officer, GEMS, UAE (a for-profit operator).
  • Kaya Henderson, Deputy Schools Superintendent, District of Columbia Schools, USA.

All the charter school providers believed, unsurprisingly, that they had brought a much-needed challenge to public school system which, in the words of Marco Petruzzi,  had been characterised by 'a culture of excuses and powerlessness', 

James Willcox argued that public schools were like 'ocean liners - slow to turn'. By contrast, his schools were 'like kayaks' , nimble and responsive.

Kaya Henderson challenged the notion that public school districts had to be like ocean liners. She said they could learn to be nimble and to do things differently as has happened - controversially - in Washington DC's schools.

She argued that public school systems - like private providers  - 'need to offer our parents choice'. She described how the District of Columbia had re-negotiated contracts with the teacher unions and sought to do things in a different way, sometimes working with outside providers like charter school operators.


 As she put it: ‘Effectively we are trying to create in traditional public schools the same climate that people associate with charter schools’ .


Mike Feinberg argued that it was precisely because of the challenge from outside providers that Washington DC, which he said had one of 'the most broke' systems in the USA, had turned to 'creative people' like Kaya Henderson to fix the problem.


Ralph Tabberer predicted that within 10 years the private sector would be even bigger than now in school provision around the world. He said governments could not do it on their own. And he defended the role of for-profit providers, like GEMS, saying they were led by accountability to parents.


 Asked if he favoured a voucher system for public schools, he admitted that would be a 'big leap'  but he thought it was possible provided the public could be persuaded of the sustainability and accountability of the for-profit sector. He said:  ‘We have to reassure people that we <in the private sector> are educators, that we won’t abandon the poorer communities, then as people see that we can work wth public sector partners then they will see that vouchers can work’.  


Christine Gilbert said the latest evidence from the academies programme in England (where mostly former failing schools schools are run outside local authority control) was that 'something significant' was now happening. She said Ofsted had now inspected 43 academies and of these 11 were found to be 'outstanding' and 10 to be 'good',.


Asked what made a difference to their schools, the charter school providers cited: high quality school leadership, local flexibility, smaller schools, and freedom from teacher unions, innovative methods, and closeness to parents.



User Comments

Fiona Millar - 09 Oct 2010

private vs state

What a very 'unbiased' panel!!

Nick - 11 Oct 2010

private / public

Mike, I expect better of you - describing academies as being run 'outside local authority control' is simply wrong. No school are under local authority 'control', as you well know - they are (admittedly to different degrees) autonomous.
MB: fair point, I slipped up there with some journalistic shorthand.

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