"We Don't Take Credit Cards." By William L. Bainbridge. School and College. November 1994.


By William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.
President & CEO, SchoolMatch

Sam had always been courteous and efficient. For 10 years he owned and operated the local shoe repair store. He was a good conversationalist and did excellent work. Sam, however, had unusually stringent rules for a small business. The yellow sign with black lettering glared in the front left window, "NO CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED." Sam did not want to pay the bank fees and felt the cards unnecessary. Another sign, equally bold, was in clear view in the front right window, "ALL PAYMENTS IN FULL IN ADVANCE". It seems Sam had been stuck with a few deadbeats over the years.

Each time I had heels or soles replaced, Sam shined my shoes as part of his excellent service. They looked nearly new. The next time I walked into the shop, there was another sign - "We do not shine shoes".

Last month, I stopped by Sam's to pick up a few shoe trees. He was quick to give me the bad news. After a decade of providing great service to his patrons, the "negative cash flow" was eating him alive and he was going to close the doors. He handed me his resume and asked if I could be of assistance in helping him find a position. He reminded me of his great work ethic and commitment to client satisfaction.

Sitting behind the wheel in traffic on my way home, I began to reflect on Sam's situation. He had established his own rules. He had convinced himself he was right. He knew people should pay in advance and the credit cards cost him an extra six percent. Sam also knew he was a professional, and that buffing shoes was beneath his dignity at any price(unless, of course, the customer had purchased other services). Many repair shops in our area ask for a deposit, not a full up-front payment. Those that do ask for payment when you drop off your shoes usually make it a casual request when handing the customer the claim ticket. Every other shoe repair shop in the area gladly accepts major credit cards, and will be pleased to buff your shoes for $3. Sam had ignored the market forces affecting his business, and the standards established by his competitors.

Glaring out at the orange construction barrels in my path, it occurred to me that American educators might learn a lesson from Sam's business failure. Schools will be faced with increased competition in the coming years. Whittle Communications, Educational Alternatives Inc, Sylvan Learning and various universities have already thrown down the gauntlet. (Even Disney Corporation has funded a "celebration school".) They believe the private sector can run our public schools better than our current administrators and school boards.

One of our colleagues at SchoolMatch was confronted with a classic example of the "we don't take credit cards" mentality. His son was entering kindergarten and the school offered half-day programs. The catch was that the families were not given any choice - morning or afternoon. In this case, Kevin was assigned an afternoon session when the morning would have been far more convenient for his parents and their day care center. An inquiry revealed there was a waiting list for spots in the afternoon session like the one Kevin was holding. A further check indicated there was no transportation problem. Kevin's Ph.D. former university professor parent was told, essentially, that logic had no place in student assignment. A lottery was a lottery and rules were rules.

In our work with thousands of families selecting schools, we find that private schools are frequently much more willing to accommodate marketplace needs.

Those frustrated with our public schools frequently blame bureaucratic rules and rigid systems. Some are quick to point fingers at teacher unions. There's no doubt that the NEA and AFT have made it difficult for administrators to respond to parent requests for flexibility. On the other hand, those of us old enough to remember the professional association era of the 1950s and early 1960s know it is not the teacher unions alone who have created today's education bureaucracy. Long before teacher unions were negotiating at the bargaining table in most states, rigid human resource management structures had been created by school administrators and their boards. They implemented lock-step salary schedules which ignore marketplace demand and competency.

Unlike our colleges and universities, public schools in general offer no financial incentives to recruit outstanding teachers in fields of short supply such as mathematics, physical sciences and foreign languages. Likewise, the university model of promotions through peer review has not found a place in the public schools.

At the public policy level, we have often demanded "payment in full in advance". In the face of sometimes nearly violent opposition by customers (parents and taxpayers), our schools have become testing grounds for mandated social reform. For example, over the objections of parents labeled as "right wing religious groups", curricula have been diluted to make room for substance abuse prevention programs. Ironically, hard data indicate the much touted DARE program isn't effective.

If public education is to survive well into the next century, we had better all start listening to parents and taxpayers and begin creating the flexibility which the marketplace demands and deserves. For the record, Sam is still unemployed.


Dr. Bainbridge heads SchoolMatch, a Columbus, OH, research firm assisting corporations with school data and consulting services.