The Use and Abuse of Nonprofits

To hear proponents of charter schools tell it, government is a complete waste of time–or vestigial, maybe, like tonsils.  These advocates of removing from government one of its central responsibilities–the education of citizens–then howl when scholars conclude they’re actually doing a worse job of discharging that responsibility than the public schools they disdain.  Moreover, their howling takes a very particular form–and surprise, surprise, it involves blaming the government.  As the New York Times reports,

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington group that advocates for charter schools, said the study used a flawed measure . . . .

“This research is no more valid than the government response to Katrina,” Ms. Allen said. “Why do we need to have the government give us data when the most important data is what we get locally, looking at the school and how it does in meeting the state standards to which they have to be held under No Child Left Behind?”

Let’s parse that: people who think government is a waste of time, namely, the Bush Administration, failed to discharge another essential activity of government, namely, assisting citizens in times of disaster; therefore, government is unnecessary?

This story dovetails with one from the Atlanta Constitution, which describes Boston’s decision neither to provide wireless Internet access itself nor to hire a for-profit company to do it but to create a nonprofit to handle the task.  Other than describing this as a "highly disruptive business model," no Boston official seems able to explain why this is necessary or appropriate or in some way an improvement over having the city do the job itself.  Why isn’t the people’s business being handled by the people’s representatives?  I’m a big fan of nonprofits (obviously), but no private organization, regardless of profit orientation, should be responsible for doing the government’s job.  The fact that there are private schools doesn’t mean there’s no need for public ones.

This confusion between the public sector and the nonprofit sector may stem from the War on Poverty-era practice of using nonprofits to deliver government-funded services.  It now appears that was the thin edge of the wedge of outsourcing.  If businesses (albeit nonprofit ones) can provide day care and health care and social services, why not contract out all of government–prisons, police forces, schools?  And if it’s simply a matter of choosing one contractor or another, surely for-profit businesses deserve the edge–they’re so much more efficient, aren’t they, because they have to serve that bottom line?  (For a sample of this perspective, see the Journal-Constitution source who observes, "Typically those who are motivated to make money innovate and drive costs down.")

We’ll leave for another day the question of whether for-profits are really more efficient than their charity counterparts.  For the moment, let’s just note that whatever its virtues, the nonprofit sector is no substitute for a healthy public sphere.

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