The Blueberry Story: A New Urban Legend

Published March 1, 2002

Education Week prides itself on being the newspaper of record for the nation’s public school establishment. Most articles concentrate on the latest reforms that promise to end the decades’-long skid in academic achievement by raising teacher salaries, reducing class sizes, extending the school year, and giving more “autonomy” to teachers and administrators. The weekly paper, as might be guessed, is very popular with public school administrators but virtually unknown to parents.

It was hardly surprising, then, when a recent issue of Education Week carried a guest editorial by Jamie Robert Vollmer, “a former business executive and attorney,” triumphantly titled “The Blueberry Story: A Business Leader Learns His Lesson.” Since the main point of “The Blueberry Story” is that public school apologists are right and parents and businesspeople are stupid, you’ll probably soon be hearing it cited by teacher union spokespersons and liberal politicians or even have it handed to you at your next student-teacher conference. But like an urban legend, “The Blueberry Story” doesn’t live up to its billing.

Mr. Vollmer tells of how he used to give speeches calling on teachers and school administrators to operate in a more business-like fashion . . . until one day, when he was shown the error of his ways. His epiphany occurred when someone in an audience of teachers pointed out that his private ice cream company could reject a supplier’s delivery of inferior blueberries, whereas public schools must accept and attempt to educate every child in the community, no matter how challenged.

“I have learned that a school is not a business,” Mr. Vollmer writes, because “schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.”

The analogy that apparently convinced Mr. Vollmer is transparently wrong. Children are not “raw material” in a production process. They and their parents are customers with legitimate expectations of being properly served. The real inputs are teachers, books, other supplies, and facilities, and a good principal should indeed reject those that are low quality or have an inflated price.

Moreover, it is a myth that public schools accept, much less graduate, every child in the community. Public schools have historically contracted with private schools to educate children with the greatest learning handicaps and worst disciplinary problems. In recent years, many public schools have adopted “zero tolerance” programs that result in the expulsion of a rising number of difficult-to-educate children.

Many urban public schools today operate as “magnet schools” with more highly selective enrollment policies than most private schools. Finally, with drop out rates averaging 50 percent in the nation’s larger cities, it is plain to all but the most partisan apologists that public schools are no longer keeping the promise of providing universal public education.

Still, asking government schools to operate in a more business-like fashion while they still depend on what Mr. Vollmer rightly calls “the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream” is indeed asking for the impossible. It is, as Milton Friedman once said, like asking a cat to bark or a dog to meow. This is why advocates of market-based reforms call for an end to the political allocation of funding for schools. Until then, teachers and principals are at the mercy of politicians and bureaucracies.

The current system of public school finance explains why schools find the task of appeasing “disparate, competing customer groups” so difficult. Mr. Vollmer’s ice cream company did not suffer because different customers wanted different flavors of ice cream; indeed, it thrived by catering to those differences. If schooling, like ice cream, were delivered by a competitive education marketplace, schools would specialize in serving children with certain needs, rather than provide one-size-fits-all curricula that satisfy no one (and raise costs substantially).

It is the public school monopoly on public funds and its attempted prohibition on competition, not the inherent nature of schooling, that makes the task of managing a public school so much more difficult than that of running a private company. Mr. Vollmer failed to ask the question that should occur to any successful businessman: How can any enterprise, whether private or public, operate effectively when its principals view customers as a “howling horde”?

Two real lessons emerge from “The Blueberry Story.” The first is that school finance ought to be changed so that schools, like ice cream companies, can operate in a business-like fashion. The second is that only former business executives are likely to overlook the first lesson.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at [email protected].