The Iron Triangle of Public Schools

Charter schools, voucher programs and other school choice options routinely receive criticism for their “abandonment” of public schools in favor of some alternative model of “consumer driven” education (with consumer driven always said with a sneer). Of course this is true, but the current crop of school leaders and Democrats need a lesson in market research from which they will learn how to improve the public school system.

In the American economy, we are flooded with options for consumer products and services. One can go to any grocery store and see ten different mustards, dozens of flavors of ice cream from ten different manufacturers. We have options for cellular phone service, internet service and a vast array of professional services. Yet when people think of education, they have historically had but one choice - public education. Why?

The answer lies in the iron triangle of tradition, apathy, and fear. The iron triangle plagues public schools and causes reactionary fear leading to a paralysis of thinking, the thought that if we just throw more money at the problem, or reduce class sizes or do something else, we can save public schools. But the thinking never leaves the triangle, never steps outside to determine if the movement toward school choices can provide a guide for making public schools better.

In corporate America, when a company is faced with competition so sharp as to endanger the company's market share, one of two events occur. Either the company hunkers down and accepts their tiny and dwindling market share, or the company looks long at hard at itself, retools, re-brands and re-emerges as a stronger, more viable company than before. In order for the second course of action to occur, senior management must look inward and accept a simple fact - they don't know it all and they must change their thinking or they will all fail.

The iron triangle's first leg, tradition is easy to see. We have always provided education to most children via a top-down model of public education. But why? In a society as consumer driven as ours, why have we failed to account for the consumer in education, the child and their parents. The reason is tradition - the state has always assumed it knew better than parents. My fraternity, Phi Sigma Pi, has a saying, "Merely because a practice is prevalent, may be the poorest reason for continuing it." Tradition has to make way for consumer driven policies, something schools, by tradition, have ignored.

Apathy takes a little more digging to find. True, many educators truly believe, deep in their hearts and souls that they are doing right by the kids. Some are, but many aren’t and the troubling factor remains, too many don’t care enough to change their mind set. Make no mistake, change can be frightening, but the mere thought of change has paralyzed too many education policy makers that they simply don't care.

Finally, fear, above everything else, drives the current resistance to school choice programs. The fear that another model of education, one that is consumer driven, with choices suitable for all children and their parents scares the daylights out of educators, who are used to near monopolistic control.

But by working beyond the tradition, apathy and fear, modern education administrators may find out why school choice programs are growing in popularity. By examining why parents clamor for choice schools can take a good long look at what about their business model needs to be re-tooled and re-branded. By stepping outside the triangle, public schools can be made better and then compete on the same level as the options they fear—even reasserting their market dominance. After all, if you have satisfied customers, they keep coming back.

Posted by Matt Johnston at July 10, 2005 11:00 PM