Would you ever refer to Starbucks as that chain of for-profit coffee shops? How about Southwest Airlines as a for-profit airline? You wouldn’t do so. And neither would I, nor any of your colleagues or your family. Because doing so would be a silly, perplexing and redundant thing to do.
Now consider this: when the news media (or sometimes even our own websites!) describe education companies, what’s in the lead, if not the headline? You guessed right – it’s the descriptor “for-profit” before the phrase “school operator” or “tutoring provider” or “e-learning software company.”
My friends, our words and the language we use to describe ourselves does matter. And how we use those words may well influence how others, including the media and the education “blob” follows our unfortunate example. From this day forward, let’s purge the moniker of “for-profit” from our use and substitute private enterprise or even tax-paying organizations when describing ourselves.
My point here was made much more eloquently in a recent essay penned by this year’s EIA Friend of the Education Industry Award winner Chris Whittle, long-time education entrepreneur, founder of Edison Schools and Avenues-The World School and a reliable sage for our sector. His paper, presented to Washington, DC think-tank American Enterprise Institute was entitled, “Would Steve Jobs Be A Hero If He Had Built an Education Company”?
In his paper, Chris asks the question: “When one hears ‘for-profit education company‘, what does the reference evoke? What is the emotional response?” His thought: it immediately sends the signal that profit is what the organization is all about, all of the time.
He goes on to state that beyond the immediate, visceral reaction to the descriptor of “for-profit,” there are a number of myths unfortunately very alive and well in our culture that expose the bias toward education companies. Among them:
1. Education companies can’t do good and do well at the same time — implying that our industry has a single motivation and that it will always sacrifice quality for profit-taking;
2. Making a profit means that the company is taking money out of a school or school district, rather than putting it in the school, its students or for R/D.
3. Making a profit automatically means that the goods and services provided by the private sector are more expensive.
These biases are real, pervasive, and suppress the free market system’s use of private investment capital and entrepreneurial zeal to solve complex barriers to student achievement. It is a challenge to which EIA has been dedicated since its founding and one which requires all of us to address with ALL of our stakeholders. What are we to do? EIA clearly views this challenge as central to our mission and purpose; one that is embedded in our strategic plan. So here is what we need:
1. Evidence of Effectiveness. For both proactive and defensive purposes, we need third-party data from experimentally designed research that shows the effects and outcomes of an organization’s products/services. This is a courageous decision by any company as the findings could sometimes be disappointing as they are reasons for celebrating. EIA’s partnership with the Johns Hopkins University School of Education will take on this challenge in conjunction with those companies willing to stand up to scrutiny.
2. Quality Standards of Best Practice/Exemplars. Industries frequently develop quality standards for quality control, to promote accountability and to distinguish themselves from the competition. We took a small step in this direction with the EIA Code of Business Ethics but we and our members must be more bold. Together, we will set high standards that describe exemplary operational practices across major sectors of the PreK-12 industry. The accreditation process, now promoted by EIA, is an example of one such rigorous review of an organization’s instructional integrity. Whatever quality validation process is used, EIA will shine a bright light on the top performers as exemplars in our sector, while helping others improve their performance.
3. Promote and Celebrate Our Success. No one else will do so as well as we can. We will proactively communicate the impact of our members’ programs that improve teaching and learning and contribute to the economic well-being of our communities. And we must swiftly rebut derogatory comments or misleading information with facts and with our distinct point of view. This communication campaign will use traditional and social media strategies that EIA is initiating, but to be most effective, it requires a community of engaged constituents — you — to broaden and deepen the impact of our collective voice.
4. Outreach and Advocacy. Government regulators and legislative bodies sometimes enact barriers to a level-playing field that also disrupt the free market from operating efficiently, scaring away investors. Recent examples include bans on private enterprise (AKA for-profits) from directly operating charters, exclusion from Federal I3 grants, or in the higher education world, punishing regulations on gainful employment. To be clear, EIA is committed to vigorously defending its members’ access to an open and competitive marketplace.
In essence, this must be a highly integrated campaign that builds a strong case for why private enterprise belongs alongside and equally engaged with our non-profit or NGO allies and our partners in government agencies.
If you would, please allow me to suggest a few reasons — and invite you to continue the list.
Our members provide much-needed capacity to serve students.
We bring in new capital to the public sector.
The profit that may be realized is essentially “rent” for the capital invested.
We have the ability to go to scale and achieve sustainability.
We are able to drive innovation and are nimble.
We can attract and retain top talent.
We create jobs, pay taxes and otherwise contribute to the economic well-being of the community and pay taxes.
I’m sure there are many other arguments for your company and our sector. I invite you to share those arguments with your colleagues and friends in the sector and in EIA. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.