Are Traditional Public Schools “Franchises”?
According to Investopedia, a franchise is defined as follows:
A franchise is a type of license that a party (franchisee) acquires to allow them to have access to a business’s (the franchiser) proprietary knowledge, processes and trademarks in order to allow the party to sell a product or provide a service under the business’s name. In exchange for gaining the franchise, the franchisee usually pays the franchisor initial start-up and annual licensing fees.
Franchises are a very popular method for people to start a business, especially for those who wish to operate in a highly competitive industry like the fast-food industry. One of the biggest advantages of purchasing a franchise is that you have access to an established company’s brand name; meaning that you do not need to spend further resources to get your name and product out to customers.
In sum, the term franchise is a marketing term. And given the push to turn American public education into a marketed product/service under the auspices of “school choice,” it should come as no surprise that promoters of market-driven ed reform use business terminology to attempt to reframe American public education.
Consider, for example, Brooking Institute fellow Grover “Russ” Whitehurst’s usage of the term, “franchise,” in discussing his disagreement with the institution of the local-board-run community school in this March 29, 2017, Brookings video, “The 2016 Education Choice and Competition Index.” Below is Whitehurst’s first minute of his opening remarks, which precede a speech by US ed secretary Betsy DeVos:
Good morning. Glad to see you here, see some familiar faces. I know you’re here to hear Secretary DeVos talk, but you’ve got to sit through a little bit of me first.
We’re here today to think and talk about K-12 school choice, and we’re doing that in the context of publicly-funded education.
If we had this event, or an event with this title twenty years ago, it would have been mostly about the prospects of something that did not then exist. The traditional, school-district model of the delivery of public education was a monolith that completely dominated education through the end of the twentieth century. Education within each state was provided entirely by school districts governed by elected school boards. Each district had an exclusive franchise to provide educational services within its geographical boundaries, and within those boundaries, districts managed individual schools that themselves were organized as exclusive franchises within their own geographical student assignment zones.
In the above remarks, Whitehurst attempts to redefine traditional public education using economic language, but the language simply does not fit.
Traditional public school is not a for-profit venture. There is no dealing in school-district or school-level trademarks. The purpose in opening a public school is not to use the district “brand” in order to sell a product under a business name.
Marketing a school as a brand is a characteristic of charter schools, particularly certain charter school chains. Charter schools hire PR firms to promote the school organization’s image, including commercial spots in order to market to a public in order to draw students.
Traditional public schools do not usually hire PR firms. Charter schools do. (I have been contacted twice by charter school PR reps. One wanted me to promote the school; the other wrote to defend the school based on a post I wrote.)
Why, then, describe traditional public schools as “franchises?”
I’ll return to that question shortly.
Note that Whitehurst also describes the traditional public school system as a “monolith.” According to Merriam-Webster, a monolith in this case is “an organized whole that acts as a single unified powerful or influential force.”
So, the traditional public school system, in Whitehurst’s reasoning, “acts as a single unified powerful or influential force,” which agrees with his saying that the traditional school system has “completely dominated education through the end of the twentieth century.”
In economic parlance, the traditional public school system is (dare I write) a monopoly, one definition for which is “exclusive possession or control.”
Indeed, to dominate is to control. However, it seems that the purpose of school choice is to take control from the traditional public school, but the purpose of traditional public school is to provide a service to the community in which it is located.
Why describe traditional public schools as “franchises?”
Describing traditional public schools as franchises ascribes to traditional public schools some dark, ulterior motive of profiting at the expense of students. Add “monolith,” and that self-serving motive helps foster the image of market reformer “choice” as savior underdog.
Describing traditional public schools as franchises makes those schools impersonal in a way that twists back and bites corporate ed reform in its hedge-funded keister.
The traditional public school is not a marketing entity. It never has been. Career classroom teachers do not choose the classroom for the career-ladder climb or the promise of grand salaries. The traditional public school does not market to certain, “preferable” parents and children.
However, school choice in its current manifestation cannot be divorced from a market-driven mindset. School choice is a marketed entity. I receive placards in the mail several times a year from the Alliance for School Choice, telling me about how school choice will save my children from failing public schools– and if I call to inquire, I could be enrolled in a raffle for a beginning-of-school-year shopping spree worth $500!
If I wanted to make big money, I would start my own charter school and appoint a board that would pay me six figures.
I might even sell the right to my school brand. There’s money to be made in franchising.
Whitehurst is right, however, about traditional public education being large. School systems run by elected boards still dominate the American public education landscape. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2016, a projected 50.4 million students attended US public elementary and secondary schools. According to the Center for Education Reform (CER), in 2016, 3 million students attended charter schools. Thus, approximately 6 percent of public school students attend “public” charter schools.
Sometimes the charter school franchises fold. It seems that CER is proud that charter schools close– without a hint of how such closure upsets students and communities– or affects schools that must absorb stranded students– or how the very fact that almost 300 charter schools can close in a single school year (“by a percent larger than any other schooling sector”) flies in the face of “empowering parents”:
But back to Whitehurst and his speech.
I did not listen to Whitehurst’s entire speech, and I did not listed to DeVos’, either.
However, it seems that Whitehurst has his school-choice-promotion work cut out for him, especially if he is promoting Betsy DeVos.
According to a survey conducted by the St. Leo University Polling Institute (March 03-11, 2017; 1,073 adults; + 3.0 margin of error) has DeVos’ approval rating at 34.5 percent, with 16 percent “strongly approving” of DeVos appointment as US secretary of education and 18.5 percent “somewhat approving.”
Of all of Trump’s staff and cabinet appointments, DeVos has the highest “strongly disapprove” rating at 41 percent.
Not exactly an ideal spokesperson to advertise for school choice franchises.