More than meets the eye
The politics of for-profits in education

Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak to 6th grade students at Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Va., Jan. 19, 2010.

Article Highlights

  • As long as for-profits remain outside of the "Washington consensus", they will not grow in prominence

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  • The public supports for-profit contracting for peripheral services, but not for-profit management of entire school systems #education

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  • What role should for-profit organizations play in #education?

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More Than Meets the Eye

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Executive Summary

In the aftermath of President Barack Obama's education-heavy State of the Union address in February 2011, one savvy education policy observer declared that we are on the verge of a new "Washington consensus." A Democratic president has pushed for charter schools, teacher incentives, and innovative models of schooling. Democratic- and Republican-led states have signed on to the Common Core standards. The "college completion agenda" has mobilized Republican and Democratic governors, and states across the country are adopting performance-funding measures that reward campuses for courses and degrees completed rather than enrollment.

Beneath this cheery consensus, however, a serious fissure remains over what role, if any, private, for-profit organizations should play in providing education. At both the K-12 and higher education levels, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats have made it clear in word and deed that they are skeptical of for-profit providers. Recent high-profile debates about for-profit involvement in education have divided liberals and conservatives. However, while these traditional ideological fights have garnered the headlines, there is significantly more to these debates than the typical political caricature lets on. The public, too, seems to have mixed feelings toward the role of for-profits in providing education.

Washington Politics: Traditional Divisions, with a Twist. While many of the recent debates about for-profits in education have reflected traditional divisions between skeptical Democratic lawmakers and Republicans who are philosophically comfortable with privatization, these lines in the sand are far from constant, particularly when it comes to the Democratic position. In elementary and secondary education, Democrats have been more amenable to for-profit involvement that stops short of traditional school management on policies like supplemental education services (SES) and school turnarounds. At the higher education level, a surprising coalition of Democrats broke from the rank and file to express concerns about the proposed gainful-employment regulations and the administration's singular focus on for-profits.

Public Opinion on For-Profits. At the K-12 level, the public is generally supportive of for-profit contracting for peripheral services, but much less comfortable with for-profit management of entire school sites and instruction. Data are more limited at the higher education level, but results suggest that majorities approve of for-profit colleges and universities, though they consistently see them as lower quality than public or nonprofit institutions. Interestingly, these patterns are quite consistent across Democrats and Republicans in the electorate, suggesting that the public is far less polarized on the for-profit question than Washington lawmakers.

What Should We Make of These Politics? For-profit providers are the most controversial when involved in in loco parentis arrangements with families and become less controversial as the service becomes more peripheral or the age of the student increases. As the public opinion data suggest, Americans are quite risk averse when it comes to for-profit management of K-12 schools, support private management of peripheral school services, and generally approve of for-profit colleges. In terms of real or perceived social costs, a failed tutoring provider is not as grave as a failed for-profit K-12 school. At the higher education level, the public is more tolerant of "adult" students taking on the risk of investing in a college education. As a political question, limiting for-profit involvement in K-12 to peripheral services or a small subset of schools has avoided a direct challenge to traditional Democratic interest groups while providing extra services to constituents, a net win for elected Democrats.

This dynamic suggests that government efforts to prohibit or heavily regulate for-profit providers will resonate more at the K-12 level, where the public is already skeptical, than at the higher education level, where the public is more accepting of the risk that individuals take in pursuing a postsecondary degree. The interesting question is how the vocal criticism of for-profit colleges and low visibility of for-profit providers in recent competitive grant programs will affect policymaking and public opinion going forward. Public skepticism of for-profit schools and damaging media coverage can lead policymakers to be timid in pushing for policies that encourage for-profit entry, and restrictive policies can in turn reinforce the public's conception of what constitutes the "appropriate" role for for-profits. If for-profit schools and colleges remain outside the emerging "Washington consensus" on education, we are unlikely to see a large-scale shift in the prominence of for-profit providers or the way the public feels about them.

Andrew P. Kelly  is a research fellow at AEI.

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