Emerging Forms of School Organization
This article argues that new forms of school organization are emerging that do not fit the classical definitions of public and private schools. Three case study schools are used to explore the critical features of the public-private distinction in American schooling. We focus on the fuzzy boundary between schools that are clearly public and those that are clearly private. It is our contention that, like overlapping circles in a Venn diagram, the shared characteristics between public and private schools are sufficiently stabilized to contain the ground for emerging forms of school organization that defy the public-private dichotomy.
We reviewed the existing literature to determine how our colleagues currently distinguish between public and private schools. What emerged are six primary attributes: (1) governance, (2) economic environment, (3) finance, (4) organization, (5) ownership, and (6) politics. This six-variable typology frames our exploration of the three case study schools. We chose the three schools purposively: Each represents a somewhat unique exemplar of mixed public-private characteristics.
We sought to determine important variations among the three schools and to find patterns, if any, that might illuminate our understanding of the emergent forms of schooling in the 21st century. In the three schools analyzed in this study, misconceived, yet deep-seated, beliefs about the encroachment of private interest into the public domain divided communities, caused bitter campaigns for school board elections, and provoked costly litigation.
The polemics surrounding the relative virtues and vices of public and private education, and the sharply drawn differences in the minds of proponents and opponents, are belied by the complex and fluid nature of the real schools in this study. Our principal objective was to neither condemn nor condone these schools but rather to advance the public’s understanding of how the current caricature between public and private schools obscures the complexity of emerging forms of school organization.
We found support for our early hypothesis that the public-private dichotomy is oversimplified. Educational organizations, both public and private, are diverse, dynamic, and complex—exactly what we would expect from complex adaptive systems. Furthermore, we believe our limited data support, but do not confirm, the emergence of a zone of organizational innovation—although a highly contested one—between the worlds of state and markets. The extent to which the case study schools varied along the six dimensions we studied also suggests that private and public are socially constructed terms and highly contingent at that.
The wide variety of structures and practices found among the schools also belies the traditional assumptions of the intrinsic nature of government schools and free markets, including their limits and boundaries. Traditional government and free market characteristics were interwoven in the schools to such an extent as to render them virtually ineffable. The three schools provide evidence that employing a mechanism from the private sector does not preclude the selection of mechanisms from the public sector. Each school revealed some elements of free markets could be applied without compromising the democratic principles of liberty and equal access, though at times these definitions are stretched—but the same is true of conventional public schools. In the end, these three schools are not exemplars, merely examples, of the kinds of experiments that are underway. They were neither so effective, nor so ineffective, as to prove anyone’s political point. Indeed, a perverse interpretation might be that they are still too public to succeed as examples of privatization, or too privatized to succeed as examples of public schools—depending on one’s political antipathies.
Published Monday, Oct. 20, 2003