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Private enterprise in education is no bogeyman

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We don’t have government-run grocery stores, clothing outlets, coffee shops, automobile retailers, or smartphone stores. Each day we buy most of the goods and services we use from private sellers – entrepreneurs and enterprises that make the things we need and want. We often take this process of voluntary exchange for granted, not appreciating how valuable it is to have such magnificent choice and variety available to us every day, in most areas of our lives.

But when it comes to education, the assortment of options available to most families is alarmingly limited. The vast majority of children in the U.S. attend a government-run school, assigned to them based on their zip code. It is like being told that we must buy our bread from the one assigned market nearby, or our shoes from the government-run shoe factory in our neighborhood. We couldn’t imagine such restrictions on food and clothing and other human necessities, but many of us routinely tolerate – even champion – restricting education choice.

Kerry McDonald

Kerry McDonald

Fortunately, the people of Arizona recognize that education, like food and clothing, is too important to be left to government providers alone. The state is a pioneer in education choice, enacting the first education savings account program in the country, as well as a variety of tax-credit scholarship programs that give children access to expanded education options. The number of Arizona children attending charter schools has also continued to climb over the years to nearly 200,000 students in over 500 schools, offering more choice beyond a district assignment.

This robust climate of educational freedom has led to a surge of innovation and entrepreneurship. Visionary parents and enterprising educators recognize mounting parent demand for more educational options, and build new learning models to satisfy that demand. Each model has its own features and its own approach, and Arizona parents can increasingly select the one that is the best fit for their child and family. A free and open education market is the best mechanism to meet the diverse preferences and needs of a pluralistic society.

Entrepreneurs are the ones who drive educational innovation to meet these diverse preferences and needs. They create possibilities that don’t exist or they improve upon existing offerings to add value. Arizona entrepreneur, Kelly Smith, built the fast-growing network of Prenda micro-schools after feeling that the education his eight-year-old son and others were getting was more focused on coercion than on autonomy and self-determination. An MIT graduate who sold his software company in 2013, Smith launched Prenda with seven kids in his home in January 2018. Today, there are 80 Prenda micro-schools throughout Arizona, serving about 550 children in grades K-8.

At $5,000 per student per year, Prenda micro-schools are a fraction of the cost of many other private options and about half the cost of the Arizona average per pupil expenditure. Most Prenda students receive access to educational funding through one of the state’s education choice mechanisms or through the Sequoia Choice charter program that supports distance learning models. In addition to costing less than traditional schooling, private alternatives like Prenda are much leaner, less bureaucratic, and more directly accountable to parents, who can leave if they are not satisfied. Liability concerns and operating costs are also shifted to private entities and out of the public domain, thus relieving taxpayers of these additional financial burdens.

Tom Bogle launched a Prenda school in his Maricopa home earlier this year. A former public high school teacher, Bogle left the classroom after five years of teaching because he thought that the rigid structure and standardization of mass schooling wasn’t good for young people. “There is a level of emotional damage that that kind of structure has on students,” says Bogle. “It doesn’t prepare them for the future and actually damages their ability to prepare themselves for the future.” Bogle ended up homeschooling his own children with a self-directed approach. He became increasingly interested in alternative education models and teamed up with Prenda to help more students, as well as teachers. “Prenda is creating opportunities for teachers who hate the system they work in to get out and feel good about what they are doing again, to feel good about helping kids,” says Bogle.

By opening up the education marketplace and relying less on government provision of education, Arizona is leading the way in creating more and better education opportunities for young people through entrepreneurship and innovation.

Kerry McDonald is a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. She is the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom.

6 comments

  1. Excellent article. We need to have a wall separating government and education just as we supposedly have between government and religion.

  2. ROBERT M. PURINGTON

    The article is very brief and its treatment is facile and very superficial. The concern over regimentation in public schools is valid but our society requires regimentation in many areas of employment. The comparison to consumer markets is misplaced. The deeper implication or insinuation is that democratically elected government is the enemy. But public schools are overseen by publicly elected school boards subject to open meeting rules and auditing protections. They are not self-accrediting, but accredited during visits by outside agencies.
    These protections are lacking, by design, in many charters, especially in Arizona. Indeed many entrepreneurs have added a lot of value, often chiefly to enrich themselves and their families.

  3. bradley taylor hudson

    Is this article serious? There are so many misguided and unfounded statements here that it must be either sarcasm or propaganda. The education system that made US the greatest nation was not based on free-market principles. It was based on the belief that all children deserved a good education. “Profit” is a different incentive from quality and service. As we regrettably move towards a class system that is contrary to our ideals, we should be looking for ways to reverse that trend. Clearly, free-market education is designed to provide a better education to those who have more money. This is not what we claim to be.

  4. I agree with Robert. I have no objection to private schools. I strongly object to my tax funds going to them. The have no public accreditation standards, boards elected by community, oversight of funds, etc. I am astonished by Republican lawmakers who push through bills supporting charter schools, then using them to become millionaires. Farnsworth is an example. The Republicans seem to feel it is o.k. to line their own personal pockets with money from the tax payers. We need to elect Democrats to support our public school systems. This nation became great because of immigration and public schools. The divisions within our communities are increased because of charter schools.
    They have no public accountability.

  5. Good article. Charter schools and other alternatives are here and thriving because they serve our children and their parents. Why shouldn’t a portion of my state tax dollars follow an Az child to his parents’ choice for a school? The local state school still receives all my property tax dollars allocated to it. And the local school usually spends 30 to 50% more than a private school. No we don’t need more politicians making decisions for our schools, that’s not the answer. Local control by parents and neighbors of the children who will be attending that school, this is a big part of what made our state schools effective.

  6. It’s the same argument promulgated by the likes of Betsy DuVos, our Secretary of Education, that kids deserve exactly the education that their families can afford. The thinking, presumably, is that if students receive the education that their parents can afford, wealthy families will send their kids to the best (and most expensive) schools and the poor will take what they can get. This way, we will breed our own supply of peasants and eliminate the need to import them from south and central America.
    As far as groceries, coffee, and gas, people buy the type and brands they choose based on their financial situation and their tastes. Education is not a commodity. It is a chance for those who were born into poverty to improve their lot in life. Without Universal Public Education, we return to the cast society our founding fathers left behind. There is no room for the profit motive in Education for the masses.
    And, “This robust climate of educational freedom has led to a surge of,” corruption, profiteering and financial mismanagement, much of it by our very own state legislators.
    And lastly, families are already afforded the opportunity to put their students in any public school they choose, provided they provide the transportation for that choice, through Open Enrollment.

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