Education Opinion

Fear of For-Profit Schools Is Well-Founded

By Walt Gardner — December 21, 2012 2 min read
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The argument that the business model is the way to improve schools is hardly new. At the beginning of the 20th century, reformers made the same claim, with little to eventually show for it. That’s why I was surprised to read Rick Hess’s essay in The Wall Street Journal (“The Irrational Fear of For-Profit Education,” Dec. 18).

Hess begins by maintaining it is not true that for-profit schools are “distracted by the demands of investors, while public systems can focus solely on the children.” He points to the bulk of K-12 spending going to employee benefits and salaries. Does he believe that teachers are not worth the money spent on their services? I wonder if he would like to revise that statement in light of the supreme sacrifices made by educators at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Hess then asserts that for-profit schools are more efficient than traditional public schools because of the “watchful eye of investors.” They demand cost efficiencies. Of course, they do. But at what price? When confronted with the choice between the bottom line and educational quality, they will always opt for the former. That’s what business is all about. But education is not a business. It was the result of a debate more than a century ago between corporate reformers and others who fought for democratic participation in school governance.

To his credit, Hess acknowledges that the track record of for-profit schools is mixed. That is correct. For example, White Hat Management, the largest company managing charter schools in Ohio, has an appalling record, according to the National Education Policy Center. Only 2 percent of the schools it runs have scored well on yearly progress tests. Maybe other for-profit schools can do better in Ohio, but don’t be so sure.

Let’s not forget that what business rewards more than anything else is winning. How that goal is achieved is apparently irrelevant, as continuing reports of corporate malfeasance indicate (“The Bribery Aisle: How Wal-Mart Got Its Way in Mexico,” The New York Times, Dec. 18). If so, we have to ask ourselves about putting for-profit corporations in charge of operating schools. Public schools are not exempt from unethical behavior either, witness the cheating scandals on standardized tests in some districts. But these episodes occurred only because of the punitive consequences of No Child Left Behind. Stakes that are high enough tend to corrupt everything they touch, as Campbell’s Law has shown time and again.

So rather than react with a yawn to the news that McGraw-Hill will sell its educational publishing division to Apollo Global Management for $2.5 billion, I think it qualifies as substantive evidence of inroads made by for-profit organizations into education. When corporate money is invested in schools, a quid pro quo is established (“Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools,” Dissent, Winter 2011). That should raise a red flag.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.