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Public-Private Partnerships in Elementary Education

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nagesh Chopra
October 27, 2015

classroom-435227_640Many elementary schools across the United States are struggling to stay afloat. Strained academic budgets for the majority of them limit their ability to access new technology, learning tools and materials. Yet against this backdrop, the federal government is promoting comprehensive school reforms designed to enable all children, particularly low-achieving ones, to meet challenging academic standards.

In his 2003 article, “Partnering for Development,” Dennis Rondinelli states that public-private partnerships (P3s) can bring new ideas for designing programs and projects, and greater synergy between design and operation of facilities. Through them, governments can avoid expensive over-specification of public assets and focus on life-of-project costs of initiating new activities or building new facilities. They also can broaden the service delivery horizon without going overboard on labor to execute the project.

Elementary education is an enterprise of vast proportion in this nation; for each child, it is an experience of unsurpassed importance. After family, the school’s premises are the most influential institution in his or her life. Patrinos, Osorio and Guáqueta, in their 2009 book, The Role of Public-Private Partnerships in Education, emphasize, “The main rationale for developing P3s in education is to maximize the potential for expanding equitable access to schooling, and for improving education outcomes, especially for marginalized groups.” The expectation is to make a positive impact in students’ lives by bringing to the table professional expertise and access to the latest education tools and techniques. The competition among private vendors to bid for these contracts not only can keep costs down but also place school districts in the driver’s seat. As more schools adopt partnerships, more benefits in terms of previously lost time and money can be regained.

As an example, when South Pointe Public Elementary School opened its doors in September 1991, it became the first public-private educational partnership of its kind in the nation. Education Alternatives, Inc. (EAI)—a private, for-profit educational company—and the Miami Dade County, Florida Public Schools signed a five-year contract stipulating that South Pointe staff would implement EAI’s Tesseract Way educational programs. The Public Schools pay EAI the same amount they would to start and run any other new school in the district. In addition, EAI solicits grants and raises money from private and other sources to fund additional materials, equipment, technology and additional certified and associate teachers at South Pointe Elementary. Additional study on the school’s set-up found they practiced good learning principles, implemented sound governance techniques, including shared decision-making mechanisms, and empowered parents to be a part of their children’s education.

A 200 study evaluated the scope of P3s by analyzing de facto partnerships between school districts and private retailers where empty warehouses, stores and car dealerships were just a few of the privately owned structures that several school systems had leased or acquired to accommodate exploding enrollments. In Phoenix, the Cartwright Elementary School took over a 300,000-square-foot area of what had once been known as the Maryvale Mall and shared the space with students from the Marc T. Atkinson School.

Another innovative school facilities privatization trend is the “company school,” which applies to the growing number of major employers that provide classroom space to a local public school system to accommodate the children of employees, as well as other students if the law requires it. For example, NationsBank provided elementary school space for 176 children in Jacksonville, Fla., while the Orlando Regional Healthcare System set up a school to serve 60 children of its employees in kindergarten through second grade. The schools not only save on the cost of the structure, but they also provide added convenience for working parents.

As Rondinelli points out, P3s are not panaceas for all of the ills confronting governments in providing services and infrastructure. The notion of contracting in education to make a brighter, smarter, more mature student must be tested in different settings. However, P3s do help us solve issues when other options have been exhausted.

Author: Nagesh Chopra is a second year student in the University of Central Oklahoma’s Master of Public Administration program. He can be reached at [email protected]

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