Thursday, June 24, 2010

What if we treated businesses like schools?

In his column yesterday, Jon Tevlin reports his impressions of an education forum attended by some of the candidates for governor that took place on Tuesday. Rob Hahn, the unpleasant IP candidate (that’s as close as Tom Horner is ever going to get to an endorsement from Spot) is said to have whined, Why can’t we treat a school like a business?

You hear claptrap like this all the time, but schools are not businesses. They are organized for an entirely different purpose: educating student to, inter alia, become participating citizens in a democracy, and not merely Plato’s “obedient mob.” You cannot measure education the way you measure profit, although NCLB pretends you can, with predictably horrific results.

But I thought it might be instructive to turn the paradigm around and ask, Why can’t we treat a business like a school?

After all, most business “entities” are just that: legal constructs that owe their very existence to a government enabling act.

If the Legislature hadn’t provided for them, there wouldn’t be corporations or limited liability companies with all the attendant powers of raising capital, buying and owning property, hiring employees, and, very importantly, limiting the liability of the shareholders of the corporation to the amount they have invested, that is, no personal liability for the shareholders for deeds of the corporation.

Businesses use the state’s infrastructure. In some ways are harder on it than individual citizens; they benefit from fire and police protection, and they are big users of the court system and sheriffs to enforce contracts and debts.

We tolerate them — nay, encourage them — because they provide employment. In fact, business says it's our most attractive feature!

If we enable and encourage business because it provides employment, don’t we have some right to expect that it does a decent and equitable job of it? Of course. That’s why this article in the Strib is so troubling:

Blacks are more than three times as likely to be unemployed as whites in the Twin Cities, giving the area the worst racial disparity in unemployment among the country's largest cities, according to a new study released this week.

Unemployment among blacks was 20.4 percent, second highest in the United States behind Detroit, compared with 6.6 percent among whites, which ranked the Twin Cities 36th among the 50 areas surveyed.

"Even if blacks had the exact same educational profile as whites in Minneapolis, they would still have a much higher unemployment rate," said the study from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that focuses on conditions for working class Americans.

What if lawmakers looked at the employment “gap” the same way they want to look at the education “gap?” If we borrowed the NCLB rules, we’d sack the CEO and the rest of the management, break up the corporation and sell the pieces to others who claimed they could close the gap.

Seems fair.

The Economic Policy Institute and academics like Professor Myron Orfield — whom I have cited a lot; just put his name in the search box — will tell you it is segregation that creates the gap, not the teachers.

Until lawmakers get that through their thick heads, we’ll never close either the education or the employment gap.

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