School Reform: Business Leaders Need Not Apply
Over and over again, Americans laud “business practice” and call for businessmen and businesswomen to fix our government and public institutions. A local government’s elected board congratulates itself when they hire an administrator with business experience, not local government experience. They assume that “real-world business practice” will solve the locality’s problems. People running for political office tell us that their business experience qualifies them to be the best elected officials. Public institutions—museums and other not-for-profits—hire corporate executives to “straighten out” the institution.
But “business practices,” it turns out, are volatile. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost half of business establishments fail within five years. There were more than 29,000 corporate bankruptcy filings in 2015. The American Productivity & Quality Center study demonstrates that nearly half of all new product launchesare unsuccessful and that only 45% of those new products are launched on time. That’s what counts for success in the business world.
We don’t tolerate that rate of failure in government. A failure of national defenses is catastrophic. We don’t tolerate a 50% safety rating for our drinking water (witnessFlint, Michigan). Nor is that rate acceptable for roads, public safety (police, fire, and rescue), and the other infrastructure we rely on. When the electricity goes out, we demand accountability. We don’t gamble with preservation of our national treasures. And when government fails to pay its creditors, the ensuing economic crisis impacts every citizen. We are outraged if government and public institutions exhibit the 50% success rate of the “for-profit” business world. We expect our public institutions to perform consistently and conservatively.
Most Americans believe that government and public institutions need reform. They need to improve efficiency and accountability. I agree. We cannot do that, however, by simply calling in a few businesspeople. Government and public institutions are not businesses. Government and public institutions are mission-driven—not profit-driven.
Our military forces undertake the sacred mission to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Every single member of the force swears allegiance to that mission. The mission of the local water utility is to provide the public with an adequate, clean water supply. The mission of the local government finance director is to insure that government funds are expended appropriately and with adequate oversight controls. The mission of the local museum is to preserve, display, and tell the story of the collections entrusted to its care. Each government and public institution has a public trust that they must maintain above all other considerations. They cannot cut their losses. They cannot shut down the product line. They cannot declare bankruptcy. They cannot fail.
Our school systems are a prime example. The effort to improve education through business metrics and acumen is not a “best practice” success story. A 2006 Harvard Business Review article summed up the challenge: “Business leaders . . . have been extremely generous with money and counsel for urban districts, only to be frustrated by the results. As some corporate executives are beginning to realize, urban school systems are vastly more complex than businesses. . . .” Still we persist. The charter school movement to privatize public education does not improve student education or outcomes. For-profit universities have exceptionallypoor student graduation levels and Business Leaders Need Not Apply: