Teachers Test New Ideas in Free Market

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

GREG GENAL represents a new breed of entrepreneurial educator. After working 25 years as a teacher and administrator in public schools, Mr. Genal started his own company and became a freelance teacher.

''I wasn't satisfied in the public sector,'' Genal says. ''Before I could make any decision, I would have to present it to the curriculum director, and then we would have to go to the school board....''

As his own boss, Genal can now make changes quickly. His physical-education firm, Ready Go Inc., has a dozen certified instructors implementing its curriculum in nearly 30 private schools.

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Freelance teachers are part of a growing nationwide trend to privatize everything from local fire departments to the National Weather Service.

Freelance or private-practice teachers still make up a small fraction of today's teaching population, but they represent a definite break from the past. Unlike teachers who once simply left one school for another, many are now taking control of what and how they teach by opting out of the traditional power structure.

When the Milwaukee-based American Association of Educators in Private Practice (AAEPP) was founded in 1990, it had only 16 members. Today, there are 450 members, ranging from individual tutors or teachers to large corporations such as Educational Alternatives Inc., which contracts to operate entire schools or school systems.

Most private-practice teachers are specialists in a discipline such as science, music, or math. A school can contract for these instructional services instead of hiring a new teacher for the permanent payroll.

''School districts contract for everything,'' says Chris Yelich, executive director of the AAEPP. ''They contract for bus service, food service, accounting services, legal services; the only thing they don't [regularly] contract for is educational service.''

But that is beginning to change, says Janet Beales, director of education studies at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. ''I suspect that private-practice teaching is happening in public schools in virtually every state,'' she says. It may be limited to special populations, but it exists.

Greater flexibility

School administrators like the idea of gaining flexibility and cost savings from contracting with private teachers or firms. ''They can contract and pay for just the services that they need,'' Ms. Beales explains. ''The main incentive for public schools is to tap into expertise that they don't have.''

For example, a school could offer Japanese language instruction for just one year or contract out services for disabled students.

''This is helping school boards reevaluate their role in public education and start to see that there are lots of different ways to deliver school services,'' Beales says.

At this point, no one is arguing that private-practice teachers will replace today's public-school teachers. But for those who would rather be entrepreneurs than government employees, this option can provide some real career incentives.

''Teachers that are coming out of schools of education have pretty much had just one opportunity, and that's lifetime employment in the public schools,'' Beales says. ''Now with private-practice teaching, they are starting to explore other options for themselves.''

''This establishes the professional status of teachers,'' says Ted Kolderie of the Center for Policy Studies in Minneapolis. ''You can see the country trying a lot of variations on the traditional factory-model school. This is one of them.''

In many states, the legal authority for public schools to contract for instruction is ambiguous. Most states have some provision for contracting with private providers for a specific program such as special education or driver's training. But supporters of private-practice teaching are looking for clarification.

''We've been trying to get private-practice language through the state legislature here in Wisconsin for five years,'' Ms. Yelich says. ''It's been defeated every year.''

Critics charge that introducing private providers into public classrooms will diminish instructional quality. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that increased competition will only raise the quality of instruction.

Wary of unions

Not surprisingly, the teaching establishment is opposed to the idea of freelance teachers working in public schools. ''Most school boards around the country are afraid to try it,'' Yelich says. ''They don't want to face a costly grievance'' from the teacher unions.

And some owners of private education companies are happy to stay out of the public schools. ''We find we are much more successful just dealing with the private sector,'' says Robin Gross, founder of Science Encounters. In addition to science birthday parties and a science summer camp, her company now offers before- and after-school enrichment classes at public schools. But parents pay tuition for the service.

Private-practice teachers say they are not out to take over the public schools.

''We want public schools to remain exactly as they are,'' says Yelich. ''Just give them that flexible tool so that when the kids are requesting a special course, it can be provided.''

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