Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Written by Cherry Fisher May

Can we really run government like a business?


When it comes to education, the answer is yes, but it’s up to us as shareholders to make it happen.

When the mantra that we should run our government the way we run our businesses first entered popular political parlance many years ago, it struck me as an odd notion. After all, businesses are free-wheeling enterprises
motivated by profits while governments deliver services based on revenue from taxes and fees. Private companies can incentivize employees at will based on their performance while government entities have highly structured and regulated opportunities for advancement. Successful captains of industry are bold, nimble and progressive, thriving on competition and growth. Government is often criticized for being too big; its agenda is advanced through political means, which are often furtive, frustrating, fickle and fearful of new ideas.

But I’ve realized that our school system is a different type of government body; students who can afford choices have many. Lafayette Parish is chock full of successful private and parochial schools that compete with the public school system and each other for students, or customers. Education in our community is, in fact, a business, and private sector schools are run that way. Acknowledging that there are some — even many — differences between them, isn’t it time to take a more business-like approach to the way we run our public schools as well?

Now is the perfect time to raise the question. The entire school board is up for re-election this fall, which will likely affect the tenure of the current administration. We are entering a cycle of almost certain change. It’s an opportunity for taxpayers and voters to assume the role of shareholders and take a look at our school system from a business point of view.

In cities and public school districts across the country, it’s increasingly evident that students excel and schools perform best when good basic business principles are followed. This requires a school board that limits itself to an advisory role. It means that the board sets robust goals, adopts accountability methods that are easy to understand, hires a strong CEO (superintendent) who is given the responsibility and authority to run the system, and then holds that CEO accountable for achievement. It also requires strong principals on each campus who are empowered to run their individual schools without fear of school board meddling. We need to elect candidates who pledge to adhere to these good management practices and then diligently monitor them once elected.

With revenues of $310 million, the Lafayette Parish School System would rank sixth on Acadiana Business’ list of the Top 50 companies if it were in the private sector, alongside Dynamic Industries, Louisiana Wholesale Drugs, The Schumacher Group and Acadian Ambulance. These companies are run by some of the brightest CEOs and management teams in Acadiana. And if we want to attract leaders of that caliber and keep them in our education system, we need a school board that knows how to hire and motivate people with that level of talent.

For a business model to succeed, all stakeholders — from teachers and administrators to parents and taxpayers — must be able to understand and trust the numbers that measure success or failure. In Louisiana, that’s been difficult. Past testing methods often morphed from one administration to the next, and the reports themselves have been dense and difficult to interpret, making it impossible to gauge progress and fomenting distrust between those inside and outside the system. Now the state department of education provides standardized performance goals and easy-to-understand reports for each school in a new ‘District-at-a-Glance’ feature on its Web site (www.louisianaschools.net). It’s essentially an annual report to us as shareholders and will be a tremendous tool as we go to the ballot box across Louisiana this fall.

If the business model is succeeding in school systems elsewhere — and it is — then it should flourish in an enterprising community like Lafayette.

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