In 2001, public school district officials knew that private companies might be able to save them money — which could then be funneled into the classroom — by providing support services. But they also knew that asking for proposals for service contracts could inspire a backlash from their unions. Attitudes changed a lot over the past 16 years, though, and our survey of school districts shows just how much.

Back in 2001, we knew that some districts had been able to find private contractors to help them, but we didn’t know how many. So we called those we could and heard back from most of them. It was enough to estimate that 31 percent of districts contracted out for food, custodial or transportation services.

We tried again in 2003. This time, we heard from enough districts to get a good handle on which services were most frequently contracted out. We found that 28.6 percent of districts had contracted out food services, and only small numbers contracted out for custodial or transportation services.

Today, 71.5 percent of districts contract out for these support services. More than half use private vendors to clean and maintain district property. More than a quarter use private bus companies and employee leasing agencies to transport students to and from school.

Privatization has saved districts and taxpayers millions, and we’ve helped them do it. Districts have been able to point to their neighbors to show that contracting out is an acceptable practice. And thanks to its increasing use, school officials today experience less pushback when they explore the option.