Big front page story in the WaPo today about a debate over getting rid of congressional “earmarks” for for-profit entities.   But is the problem that for-profits can get earmarks or that the earmark process is just not very meritorious in its selection regardless of the tax status of the recipient?  Plenty of for-profits will continue to get federal money through a variety of avenues.  Meanwhile, not every non-profit is a model of efficiency, virtue, or effectiveness.

In K-12, and education more generally, we have a similar problem when it comes to thinking about quality.    In the absence of serious signals or cues for quality we, too, rely on secondary cues like tax status.   Consider school management organizations.  In much of our field  for profit is synonymous with bad, non-profit and school district is synonymous with good.   Yet in practice there is wide variance in quality within all three sectors and the highest performing ventures across all three sectors have much more in common with each other than they do with their low-performing peers.  In other words, tax status doesn’t necessarily tell us much.   And to the extent this is ideological, anyone arguing that for-profit ventures shouldn’t be involved in education has no idea how school districts operate or procure a variety of goods and services.

Or consider research.  We constantly have debates about whether research from academic institutions or from certain kinds of organizations is inherently more reliable.  It’s a stupid debate.  In fact there is wide variance in the quality of research across all sectors and consumers have to be able to make discerning choices and put information in context.  For instance while the NEA or AFT,  rightly in my view, come in for criticism because of some of their policy positions it would be a mistake to dismiss their research efforts out of hand because they collect some important data.  Conversely, not every federal study offers strong explanatory leverage on the questions it is examining.  And Lord knows university research and think tank research are mixed bags and just because something comes from a university hardly makes it bulletproof.  Again, the superficial cues are pretty useless.

Here, in my view, is where the common standards push offers the most promise.   It won’t actually solve most of the problems many of its adherents claim it will.  But it could do one very powerful thing:  Help rationalize the field by creating a common framework for evidence of effectiveness that transcends geography.  The implications of that — in a $600+ billion industry where right now any claim goes and there are hardly any cues for quality  — are powerful.

7 Replies to “Profit!”

  1. Andrew: You are missing the point. the issue isn’t the PROFIT. it is the political quid pro quo. Businesses can make all manner of campaign contributions to a candidate through their PACS and independent expenditures and get an earmark in return. Happens all the time. And will most certainly get much worse under Citizen’s United vs FEC. Google “Don Young and Coconut Road” for an example.

    The reason it’s not a problem for 501(c)(3) nonprofits is that they are strictly prohibited by their status from all poliltical activity. So by definition there can’t be any quid pro quo.

  2. Kent: What you seem to be willfully unaware of is that the same arguement you make against for profits – that they can skew a selection process via political contributions – can also be made for teacher’s unions.

    501 c. 3s are not disinterested innocents or virgins. They are groups with viewpoints and interests. They are not all 90 pound weaklings. The larger ones have relationships and connections with moneyed individuals and corporations which they aggressively leverage to advance their organizational self interest. Further, many 501 c. 3. organizations function as part of a ‘family’ of organizations, with related 501 c. 4.s and PACs.

    There are no innocents in these woods, only degree’s to which when we smile we have feathers sticking out of our teeth.

  3. Kevin:

    I’m not willfully unaware of anything. And I’m not actually defending earmarks for nonprofits. I frankly think that all government funds should be administered through competitive grant processes rather than earmarks for specific organizations.

    That said, it is most certainly the case that all the recent egregious examples of earmark abuse involve for profit corporations. I’m comfortable scrapping the earmark process for everyone. But as the article in question states, starting with the for-profit earmarks are as good a place as any to begin with earmark reform.

    Also, I don’t think we’re talking about unions here. Which unions are recipients of earmarks? Any of them?

  4. Both npos and fpos have benefited from questionable earmarks. I would wish for an end to earmarks, but that would be wasting a wish. I’ll wish for something more probable, like a Cubs World Series appearance.

  5. Acorn: did you miss the news that you were recently found not guilty of most all the radical rights charges? Or perhaps the fact that the “video” evidence was edited to the point that it really didn’t show anything?

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