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Assessing the Quality of Public Private Partnerships

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

As with many developments in public education, when you hear about a “public private partnership”, you would do well to ask a few follow-up questions. For example, you might wonder about the true business interests – given that many entities are profit-driven. If the company has a foundation arm providing grants, what are their metrics pushing for schools or districts to demonstrate? To what extent does the business respect education experts and maintain a respectful distance from policy decisions?  Are these programs operating in traditional public schools and are they successfully expanding? Do these programs support equity? In an era where tax dollars are scarce and public schools are struggling under the challenges of tightening budgets, it is tempting to cite examples of cross community collaboration as a possible solution to school funding issues. However, not all partnerships are the same when you compare quality, mission or implementation, and continued questioning is essential. Finally, it is important to acknowledge that despite the economic downturn, we should always be advocating for adequate public funding for all of our schools to ensure equal access and the opportunity for every child to learn and succeed in the 21st century.

At a recent Center for American Progress event on public-private partnerships in education innovation, four panelists spoke about the importance of collaboration and partnerships when it comes to ensuring students are prepared for college and have skills to be successful in today’s workforce. These individuals all acknowledged the importance of preparedness and the strides we must make to stay competitive. For example, Anthony Miller, Deputy Secretary at the Department of Education, encouraged businesses and philanthropy to support school activities as the entire economy and society more broadly benefits from strong vibrant public schools. It is a national imperative that our students are prepared for the challenges we face.

Beth Shiroishi from AT & T agreed that companies should be supporting public education. It is important to ensure a talent pipeline with emerging workers who are both academically prepared in math, sciences and other subjects, but who are also prepared to be part of a team with problem-solving and collaboration skills. More generally, businesses want to be able to hire from a qualified workforce, and it is in their interest to support that development. Secondly, companies benefit more broadly from a flourishing economy and stronger consumer purchasing power.  As part of its corporate citizenship effort, AT & T’s ASPIRE program is working to identify successful solutions to addressing America’s dropout crisis and scaling them up. Their investment is long-term, over several years, and meant to be done in collaboration with education experts who understand the system. Ms. Shiroishi acknowledged that it is important for businesses to understand that the public education cannot be run as a business and to let education leaders lead the way. However, given the company is making a significant investment, they believe they should have control over the metrics, outcomes and ultimately where the funding goes, which has the potential to sway decisions at a school or district level.

The fourth panelist, John Bridgeland, discussed another, broader way that public-private partnerships can work. He is President and CEO of Civic Enterprises, which released a report “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic” in collaboration with America’s Promise Alliance and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. The report features research done in November 2010 by AT & T, Target and The Pearson Foundation, which shows positive strides being made in addressing the dropout crisis. Based on that report, American’s Promise Alliance, comprised of organizations with institutional reach and capacity to help address the crisis, developed a The Civic Marshall Plan which now forms a common agenda, focusing a number of private entities on delivering the recommendations in the report.

While research, resources, collaboration and commitment are all exceedingly important, it is imperative that our educational leaders remain front and center in guiding these efforts. Bill Raabe, Director of the National Education Association’s Center for Great Public Schools, advocated for local engagement between schools and community members, including members of the teachers union who are also residents of the community. Private-public partnerships come in many shapes and forms, and while businesses are an important private sector actor, they are not a substitute for diverse sustained local engagement.

Education is an investment, and we all can agree that an investment in our children is an investment in our collective future. The business of America’s classrooms may affect more than those who work and learn in them, but those who run schools and districts, and who teach in the classrooms everyday are the ones who should drive the decisions and make recommendations. Public-private partnerships, if done in true collaboration and in deference to those with education expertise, can positively contribute to a shared benefit of more robust and vibrant school activities and opportunities. Education experts should be accorded the same respect as professionals in other sectors for their unique knowledge and capacity. Public schools in the United States provide a pipeline of young talent, but they all deserve an opportunity to succeed; educational leaders from the school boards and state boards of education to the teachers, principals and district administrators are committed to ensuring all children are guaranteed an equitable and quality education.


While partnerships stand to

While partnerships stand to amplify mutual interests and success, some are considered ethically problematic. When a politician, for example, partners with a corporation to advance the corporation's interest in exchange for some benefit, a conflict of interest results.