Higher education is not a business venture

In the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, policymakers began to view higher education more as a private good than a public good, meaning that universities benefited individual students more than the nation at large. In previous decades, public universities enjoyed robust support from state and federal government and tuition at some of the country’s best universities was free or nearly free — in fact, UCLA did not charge California residents tuition until 1967. With the fierce competition for prestige, desire for continual improvements and heightened need to attract an increasing number of students, universities began to resemble businesses more than nonprofit institutions.

 The trend toward universities functioning on business models has permeated various facets of higher education, and the movement has begun to negatively affect primary and secondary education as well. Public school districts have been recently pressured to eliminate employee protection programs like teacher tenure and wrongly emphasize accountability systems that force teachers to ensure their students annually pass a state exam — even though these tactics can have a profoundly negative impact on both students and staff. Though it remains clear that education reform is necessary, the movement toward a business model is certainly not the direction in which public schools should move.

 As enrollment declines in Los Angeles public primary and secondary schools, the Los Angeles Unified School District has taken a cue straight from the universities themselves by using similar marketing tactics to attract prospective students. To combat the increased competition from charter, private and parochial schools for an increasingly limited number of students, LAUSD hired a marketing director last December. As part of their strategy, LAUSD plans to launch a website this week with resources, such as brochures and handouts, available for principals to utilize at their schools. Other proposed strategies include eliminating the teacher tenure system and creating performance-based accountability through high-stakes testing —  negatively pushing traditional public schools toward operating on business models, beneficial for neither staff nor students. Studies have not been able to demonstrate conclusively that such a system is the most effective in increasing student achievement. Schools should not measure teachers based on how students perform on exams, as that causes teachers to emphasize teaching directly to the state accountability exam and thereby ignore long-term goals.

Contrary to traditional public schools, charter schools began at the outset with a business model. The argument in favor of having schools operate strategically is that they can facilitate a shift toward a performance-based system and provide competition within the public school system, ultimately creating a higher quality educational environment. The idea is that charter schools are better able to hold schools accountable for meeting measurable pupil outcomes by implementing a performance-based accountability system.                                                 

However, studies have not been able to conclusively demonstrate that such a system is the most effective in increasing student achievement. On average, public schools that do not use businesslike tactics often perform at least as well or better than the average charter school in a comparable district. Despite the facts, this trend led to the “high-stakes testing” found in schools today, where teachers’ performances are based on how well students perform on exams — neither proven to increase student proficiency, nor quality of staff. The trend in the later part of the 20th century in higher education of universities functioning more like businesses has had an impact on the way public schools operate nowadays.

The question whether traditional schools should operate in such a way, given an increase in competition for enrollment due to a movement toward alternative schools like charter schools, still remains to be seen. What is clear is that traditional public schools have had to evaluate some of their practices, namely the teacher tenure system and performance-based accountability system, to keep up with an ever-changing atmosphere. However, public schools should not eliminate the employee practices that reward effective teachers by granting them tenure. Make no mistake: Public school systems should not consider adopting an accountability system that rewards teachers more for students passing a state exam than learning actual material.

Julia Lawler is a sophomore majoring in history and social science education. Her column,  “Get Schooled,” runs Fridays.