Public Schools & the Education Consumer Association
Public schools are a publicly funded local monopoly; and unlike organizations that compete in a marketplace, they are substantially insulated from consumer dissatisfaction. As an illustration, schools will undertake policy changes producing visible customer protest—an option that is virtually unthinkable in competitive markets. In recent years, however, consumers have become increasingly restive and energized. A significant and growing number of parents are refusing to use free public schooling and choosing home schooling or private schooling instead. Education Consumers Associations are another product of the emerging trend.
ECAs improve education by empowering consumers. They independently gather and disseminate information that is of value to public education’s consumers. Their reports can significantly impact school quality because they are a form of consumer feedback that cannot easily be manipulated or ignored. In this regard, they are like the feedback that shapes the behavior of other organizations in the marketplace. Wal-Mart, for example, gets feedback through its sales data. If customers are satisfied, sales go up and if not, they go down. Wal-Mart must either act to increase customer satisfaction or suffer the economic consequences.
Through an ECA, consumers can increase the responsiveness of schools to their aims and priorities. The dissemination of grassroots research about the policies, programs, and practices of local schools builds informed public sentiment and supports consumer-friendly action. Reports from consumers let schools know what consumers consider important and why.
ECAs also strengthen the ability of school boards to act in behalf of consumers. Public schools are governed by lay oversight boards but their actions are tightly controlled by a variety of legal and bureaucratic constraints. Board members may want to act in support of consumer priorities but without the endorsement of the local school superintendent their hands are usually tied. Independent action by a board requires a consensus among its members and any sustainable consensus requires the support of an informed public. Unfortunately for consumers, most of what the public knows about local education issues comes from the schools themselves and almost all of that information is designed to support the school system’s interests and priorities.
Without an alternative source of information and opinion, school board decisions that put consumers first are have little chance of overcoming bureaucratic opposition. Instead of asserting the consuming public’s priorities, board members are limited to tinkering with recommendations that are, first and foremost, agreeable with the views and interests of school officials.
A New Relationship Between Consumers and Schools
ECAs have an enormous potential for impact because in most states and localities there is no organized, independent, and visible expression of consumer thinking about school issues. Education officials selectively tell policymakers, the media, and the public what they want them to hear. Good news is emphasized and bad news is minimized. Journalists have no recognized sources with which they can balance their stories. The public is given to believe that schooling problems are most likely to be solved by more funding and better parenting. Issues such as accountability, cost-effectiveness, and customer convenience are often invisible at the local level. Schooling failures and shortcomings are reported only if their disclosure is inevitable or some intrepid reporter digs them out.
Individual parents or others who draw attention to issues that officials find distasteful frequently find themselves isolated and characterized as uninformed, misled, or irresponsible. Recognizing this prospect, most parents approach the schools hat-in-hand--hopeful that their views will at least be entertained. They feel they have "arrived" if they are permitted input or a seat at the table.
Even when there is widespread sentiment about a schooling issue, consumers may have little influence. Schools act to diffuse opposition to their policies. Committees formed to discuss school issues are typically organized by schools and stacked to suit their purposes. Parent and community participants are added or removed at the pleasure of the schools. Meetings are orchestrated so as to propagandize and pacify rather than make substantive changes. In the educational partnership, educators view consumers as the junior partners.
With an ECA acting as voice for local consumers, tenor of the relationship between schools and consumers can be much different. Consumer views cannot easily be isolated, discredited, or suppressed. ECAs set their own organizational structure, their own agenda, their own committees, and they conduct their own meetings. ECAs are not dependent on the local schools for invitations, input, or validation of their views. Their role is to monitor the actions of schools and to comment and report to the public as they deem necessary and appropriate. Member opinion, community surveys, and various forms of objective data are collected, summarized, and disseminated in consumer-friendly form. Schools may provide input but they do so at the invitation of the ECA, i.e., in much the same way they might provide input to the Chamber of Commerce.
Although Education Consumers Associations are often formed in reaction to some local schooling controversy, it doesn’t mean that an adversarial relationship with the schools is inevitable or permanent. Satisfied customers can be supportive customers. Unlike PTAs, however, ECAs maintain an arms-length relationship with local schools. PTAs are founded on the notion that parents and teachers are partners. ECAs are founded on the premise that parents are the senior partners. In the marketplace, it is the buyer that leads and the seller that follows.
Education Consumers Foundation
1655 North Fort Myer Drive, Suite 700
Arlington, VA 22209
Phone: (703) 248-2611
Fax: (703) 525-8841
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