Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Public-Private Partnerships, Civic Engagement, and School Reform

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Public-Private Partnerships, Civic Engagement, and School Reform

Article excerpt

What we know to do far exceeds what we are free to do.

--James Moffett (1994, p. 589)

The number of partnerships between public schools and private organizations increased dramatically after the National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983) issued its report, A Nation at Risk. Prior to 1983, only 17% of the elementary and secondary schools in the United States had been engaged in these collaborative ventures. By 1989, the figure had increased to 40% (Marenda, 1989); by 1991, businesses alone were engaged in more than 140,000 partnerships with schools (Rigden, 1991); and by 2000, it was estimated that several hundred thousand businesses were collaborating with schools (Partners in Education, 2000). Moreover, The Council for School & Corporate Partnerships (n.d.) reports that collaborating businesses have contributed an estimated $2.4 billion to aid schools. These statistics are undeniably impressive and suggest that alliances between public schools and private organizations have been highly productive. In truth, however, there is little empirical evidence supporting the contention that public-private partnerships have improved student learning; and at the same time, these ventures have sparked consequential questions about the critical nature of democratic localism and civic volunteerism in school reform.

In this essay, I propose an uncommon perspective of public-private partnerships in the United States--one that calls for direct citizen involvement to ensure that collaboration is linked to and compatible with reform efforts carried out at the local (school district) level. The need for a new conceptualization is framed by three convictions: public-private partnerships have been largely ineffective in terms of improving instruction and student learning; democratic deficits in these ventures are incompatible with the concept of local control and potentially detrimental to school reform; and, civic engagement should become a normative standard for shaping, implementing, and evaluating school-improvement initiatives. In building a case for direct citizen involvement, I first examine partnerships in terms of motives, outcomes, and factors influencing success. Then civic engagement is defined and discussed in relation to public-private partnerships operating in the prevailing political environment found in most local school systems. Lastly, recommendations are made for addressing objectionable aspects of public-private partnerships.

Motives and Outcomes in Public-Private Collaboration

Conventionally, a partnership is a formal arrangement involving two or more parties intended to benefit all collaborators. Public-private partnerships specifically include associations between a governmental agency and either a private profit-seeking or private non-profit organization. Though public schools have been engaged in a variety of collaborative efforts with most being in the public-private class, the word, partnership, has not been defined precisely. As a result, it has been used indiscriminately to describe different levels of associations (Kowalski, 2008). Because of this indistinctiveness, generalizations about education partnerships have had limited value. Nevertheless, it is advantageous to understand why collaborators have been drawn to these projects, the extent to which the projects have achieved their goals, and the conditions that have affected goal achievement.


Many reasons underlie the popularity of public-private partnerships. From a societal perspective, citizens support these initiatives because they believe that an infusion of private capital into public education is socially and personally beneficial (Crow, 1998). Furthermore, they believe that corporate executives and school administrators have a positive influence on each other. This latter conviction is supported by policy literature suggesting that public institutions do some things better than private organizations and vice versa (Ghere, 1996). …

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