James V. Shuls

We ask a lot of our public schools. We ask that they not only educate children, but also transport them and feed them. Many provide before- or after-school care for students. We expect schools to serve students regardless of their learning needs. They must maintain buildings, parking lots, and playing fields. When a teacher is sick, they have to find temporary staff to fill the gap.

Many public schools are unable to do all of this. To meet the needs of students, they often—to borrow a word from the business world—“outsource” jobs. Just like your paycheck gets printed by an outside company or your office is cleaned by an independent janitorial service, schools often hire a private company to manage the district’s bus services, to provide before- and after-school care, to cook children’s meals at lunch time, and to clean the buildings. Schools contract with outside healthcare professionals or private schools to meet the needs of students with special needs. A district can even contract with an outside management firm to run the school if they want. Some schools are even outsourcing who teaches your children, at least when they have a substitute teacher.

Filling all of the vacant classrooms when teachers are absent can be a challenge for school district officials. Some districts hire full-time aides who act as floating subs, filling in here and there as needed. Others employ a cadre of retired teachers, individuals looking to gain experience in the profession, or others simply looking for part-time work. The process of recruiting, hiring, and placing substitute teachers can be cumbersome. Rather than hire an assistant superintendent or other central office staff member to take on this responsibility, some schools have begun outsourcing this job to a private company.

In Saint Louis, for example, Kelly Educational Staffing provides this much-needed service to several school districts. As Dale Singer of St. Louis Public Radio reports, the privatization of substitute teachers has been a success. In Normandy, a district that has had many struggles in the past few years, “the rate of filling classrooms with substitutes had been in the 55–60 percent range”; with Kelly, “that figure rose to around 90 percent.”

Time and again we see benefits from outsourcing public services to private companies. Yet, many fail to see how private school choice programs, such as vouchers or tax credit scholarships, could yield the same benefits. Indeed, the same principles apply to both situations.

When a public school chooses to outsource services, they make a voluntary decision. Companies compete for their business and district administrators choose the company that they believe will best meet their specific needs. If the company fails to perform, the representatives of the school district can choose to take their business elsewhere. The same can be said for school choice. When parents have options, they are able to choose the school that will meet their needs. That’s the beautiful thing about a market—it allows people to voluntarily get the services they need.

We should celebrate when public schools find a way to better deliver public education by collaborating with the private sector. Similarly, we should celebrate when parents are given the ability to choose their child’s school.

While Missouri currently allows public schools to outsource just about everything, it does not extend that opportunity to parents. It is time for that to change. Parents should be given the opportunity, through vouchers or tax credit scholarships, to enter into the educational marketplace and contract with the school that is going to best meet their child’s needs. 

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.