Law would help schools contract with small businesses
Managing a school goes far beyond putting teachers in front of children. School districts provide a wide array of services, including busing, food prep and janitorial duties, which are not directly related to the classroom experience but are important all the same.
However, because of a poorly written state law passed in 2007, school districts across Illinois have been hampered from seeking innovative ways to provide these services. Fortunately, legislation currently under consideration in Springfield would make it easier for school administrators to bring on cost-effective help.
Current law deliberately makes it difficult for schools to contract out this work to local businesses. For-profit contractors who bid for non-instructional contracts are mandated to offer comparable benefit packages to those that school district employees receive. Local small-business vendors who can't match gold-plated health insurance offerings or exceptional paid-vacation allotments, for example, need not bother to bid for the work, because they can't get it.
House Bill 6164 would eliminate this prohibition, allowing local businesses and experts in these areas to offer high-quality services at the best price. This law would align Illinois with many other states that have benefited from removing these barriers.
Michigan, for example, has more than 500 school districts. Thirty-one percent of school districts contracted out for busing, janitorial or food service in 2001. But it's worked so well that today that number is above 70 percent.
According to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, half of all school districts now contract out their custodial services. Four out of 10 school districts have contracted out food service, and more than a quarter of districts have contracted out bus service.
These figures are not a one-state anomaly. Surveys completed in four other states last year found similar acceptance of this trend. School districts estimated their savings from competitive contracting, which ran from $34 per student for food contracts to $110 per student for busing and $191 per student for custodial services.
Who would turn down another $191 per student in these tough economic times? Probably no one, which is why we need to put these savings back on the table.
Beyond the savings, partnering with professionals can improve the services provided to schools. After all, the companies that districts would contract with are professionals who do this every day.
House Bill 6164's sponsor, State Rep. Ron Sandack, a Downers Grove Republican, perfectly sums up the purpose of the legislation when saying, "What one district wants to do is maybe totally different from another district, and that is the beauty of local control."
The bill is designed to empower school districts to make the choices that work for them. If school leaders want to keep the status quo, they can. If they want to reasonably subcontract the work to local providers and free up more money for teacher salaries, classroom resources or for taxpayer relief, they'd have that option as well. The legislation leaves other contracting requirements, including provisions for transparency and safety, untouched.
This is exactly the type of reform that Illinois needs. The legislation almost passed committee on April 5, when a tie vote of 11-11 kept it from advancing. But the measure is not dead. Lawmakers can still take this issue up in the next few weeks.
If legislators really want to live up to the promises they made on the campaign trail to help kids while respecting taxpayers, the reforms should be included as part of any budget deal that moves forward.
Illinois' school leaders deserve the opportunity to realize these benefits for the children and communities they serve. Let's not stand in their way.
Kristina Rasmussen is executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute and Michael LaFaive is director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.