EdVentures 2000: Teachers as Entrepreneurs

Published October 1, 2000

Almost all of the discussion of school choice is focused on parents being free to make a choice of schools and principals being free to make a choice of teachers for their schools. Little attention has been given to choices for teachers, the individuals who actually produce the education that everyone so desperately wants to see improved. Teachers want choices, too.

The choice that opens up most opportunities for teachers–as well as presenting the greatest challenges for them–is the prospect of becoming an entrepreneur.

More than 350 teacher-entrepreneurs gathered in Detroit recently for the EdVentures 2000 Conference, organized by the Association of Education Practitioners and Providers (AEPP).

A teacher’s decision to become an entrepreneur is not an easy one, noted several speakers at the conference. For example, teacher unions routinely rail against the supposed evils of the private sector to discourage privatization efforts. That rhetoric is turned up a notch when the unions use it against school vouchers, maligning the motives of private-sector firms for “making a profit” from a child’s education. That rhetoric creates a gross misperception of the private sector and how it works.

“Just because you’re for-profit doesn’t mean you’re making money,” noted opening speaker Thomas P. Jandris, of the Education Commission of the States. But it’s also not a sin to do well while doing good, he added.

Jandris called for accountability systems that would report to taxpayers the “return on investment” they’re getting from education spending. But most educators, he noted, “have no idea what ROI is.”

At first, many teachers are uncomfortable being associated with the private sector, noted Joshua Hirschstein of Lane Tutoring Services in Oregon. He pointed out that teachers have been led to believe motives in the private sector always are suspect and that people in business are just “greedy.” Teachers are also uncomfortable being out of a classroom.

“They’ve been in a classroom since first grade and now, at age 40, they’re still in a classroom,” said Hirschstein.

Some teachers in public schools are teaching children that making a profit is bad, according to Florida State Representative Jerry Melvin. On the other hand, Polly Broussard’s organization, the Association of Professional Educators of Louisiana, promotes the idea of teachers working for themselves and holds up the model of the private practitioner in education as the “true professional.”

Economist Michael Podgursky of the University of Missouri-Columbia pointed out that one in seven teachers works in a private school. While private schools have only 11 percent of total student enrollment, they make up almost 15 percent of teacher employment because of their lower student-teacher ratio. A further examination of teacher employment statistics revealed one-third of all teachers work either for a for-profit private firm, a nonprofit organization, or are self-employed.

“It’s not a question of whether choice is coming for teachers,” said Podgursky. “Choice is already here.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.