School boards must carefully evaluate options as cost savings are not guaranteed

School boards should have the option to explore the possibility of privatizing food services as part of a larger effort aimed at  maximizing classroom resources, Sen. Jack Donahue (R-Covington) and business representatives are set to argue this week.

On Monday, Donahue’s bill (SB 413), which would remove the current prohibition against for profit services in school cafeterias, will be heard before the Senate Education Committee. The legislation is crafted to give local officials additional latitude to explore cost saving measures, he explained in an interview.

“As the state budget continues to tighten, we must make certain that the money we have is allocated and spent as wisely as possible,” said Donahue, who also chaired the state commission on streamlining government. “What I’m trying to do is to give local school boards the ability to investigate the privatization of cafeteria services so that might be a position where they can put more money into the classroom. This would be another arrow in the quiver as budgetary pressures continue to grow.”

While Donahue’s bill is included as part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform package, he does not anticipate that debate over privatizing food services will be particularly partisan.

“I don’t see this as a Republican or Democratic issue,” Donahue said. “I would expect that we might see some opposition from the cafeteria workers and some union officials. But, in the end, this is about giving each individual school system an option they do not now have.”

Dr. Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), has expressed skepticism toward the idea of privatization within the school system.

“When you look at the key parts of the governor’s agenda it’s clear that Louisiana could be the first state to a make a major move toward the privatization of schools,” he said. “What we are asking state lawmakers to do is to slow down and consider all of the proposals on the table.  Why is there such a rush to push these items through?”

Walker-Jones is particularly critical of proposed legislation that would convert the New Orleans Parish school voucher program into a statewide option.

But, Brigitte T. Nieland Vice President, Communications and Director, of Education and Workforce Development for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), views Donahue’s food service proposal as a modest change that is worthy of broad support.

“We are talking about a bill that would strike out an existing prohibition without adding any new language,” she said. “There is no mandate here that says schools have to privatize and it may or may or not be the way to go in some districts.”

Donahue concurs.

While he expects privatization to result in savings for some schools, he acknowledges that it may not be workable across the board.

“Those of us serving on the [streamlining] commission found that in some instances privatization lowered costs and in some instances it did not,” he said. “The actual costs must be carefully weighed and evaluated. But I do think we should give school boards as many options and opportunities as possible to generate savings. Our primary function is the education of children and should always work to be as efficient as possible.”

The experience charter schools have had with privatizing school services suggests that the concept has merit, Nieland, said.

“While it’s certainly true that what works for one school may not work for another, some of savings for charter school operators have been significant,” she observed. “If they don’t have to spend as much on food services that means they can spend more on teacher salaries and on classrooms. This is why I think school boards should be in a position where they can at least explore the possibility.”

Kevin Mooney is the Capitol Bureau Reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter.