When What's Good for Kids Conflicts With What's Best for Adults: Privatizing Services in Public Schools

In  yesterday’s NJ Spotlight, Jerell Blakeley, campaign organizer for a group called the New Jersey Work Environment Council, is disturbed by the growing trend of school districts to outsource custodians to private agencies in order to cut costs. He worries about the “wholesale replacement of knowledgeable and dedicated veteran staff members...with lesser-paid temporary workers and the impact on the school’s hygiene and maintenance, “misleading cost-benefit analyses,” the loss of institutional knowledge of a building’s quirks. Most critically, Blakeley worries about the disproportionate impact on custodians of color and quotes Bruce Bodner, the lawyer for the Transit Workers Union Local 234 in Philadelphia, who says that with “public employment in general being under attack, it’s really an attack on these communities.”

But Mr. Blakeley conflates two very different concerns that are worth unpacking because they tie into larger questions of the balance between schools as institutions of learning and schools as employment agencies.  His first concern is one of quality: he argues that privatizing buildings and grounds work  hurts school hygiene and maintenance because  privately-contracted custodians are less effective than district-employed ones.

His second concern is economic. He cites an article in the New York Times that estimates that about 20% of Black adults work in the public sector and outsourcing custodial work will reduce their income.

It seems to me that the jury’s out on Mr. Blakeley’s concern about quality. Public schools privatize all sorts of services that involve people: busing, food preparation, food service, speech and language therapists, nurses, etc. They sign private contracts with engineers, lawyers, architects, technology vendors, textbook companies.  New Jersey even out-sources many of its highly-lauded Abbott preschools to private operators. Most districts report no problems.  For example, a profile in EdWeek of a Michigan school that privatized custodial work found that the district has been "very satisfied" with the services provided by the company.”

Privatizing services is a matter of taste, not morality. Gustibus non disputandum est. Your champagne is my swill.

But it is economics that is at the heart of Mr. Blakeley’s real argument, a grievance that leaks into disputes about charter schools (outsourcing education to a different public operator unbound from lockstep salary guides and tenure), PARCC (oh no! It’s Pearson!), and even the Common Core State Standards (partially funded by that diabolical duo Bill and Melinda Gates when they took a break from investing in effective treatments for HIV, polio, and malaria).

And here we get to Mr. Blakeley’s true agenda.

It’s true that outsourcing public sector jobs hurts the public employment prospects of adults. Newark Public Schools, for example, is Newark’s  largest employer and most Newark residents are Black and Latino.  In that Michigan district cited in the EdWeek article, 50 district employees lost their jobs, although some were rehired by the private company at lower wages because public schools pay more for comparable work. According to this job site, the average custodian in N.J. makes $25K. But during the 2013-2014 school year, custodian salaries  in a typical N.J. school district (Roselle Public Schools) started at $33,660  and topped out at $68,715.

In other words, privatizing custodial work saves districts money that can then be reallocated to student instruction. But it also lowers custodians' salaries.

To many people, this would be an economic issue with moral implications. Again: are schools institutions of learning or employment agencies?

To Mr. Blakeley's organization, they're the latter.

The Board at the New Jersey Work Environment Council, is comprised of union  officials with the primary responsibility of protecting adult jobs.  Members include Sean Spiller, Secretary-Treasurer of the NJEA; Marie Blistan, Vice President of the NJEA; Diana Crowder and Adam Liebtag of the AFL-CIO; John Pajak of the Teamsters; Cheryl Skeete of AFT. Their  agenda has nothing to do with the well-being of schoolchildren but with the economic well-being and job security of adults.

School districts throughout the country regularly confront tough fiscal decisions when allocating fixed funding.  Responsible districts -- and here we're back into the realm of morality -- choose what's best for children over what's best for  adults, and sometimes that translates to outsourcing certain services. Mr. Blakeley and his organization would invert that equation. I think he's wrong.