School Choice & Charters Opinion

Should Schools Be Run for Profit?

By Diane Ravitch — November 29, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

The next big idea in “education reform” is online instruction and cyber charters. I know that teachers are doing wonderful, creative activities with technology, and there is no doubt that technology can bring history, science, and other studies to life in vivid ways. But there is a cloud on the horizon, and that is the growth of the for-profit cyber charters. I confess that it troubles me to think of children sitting at home, day after day, with no opportunity for discussion and debate, no interaction with their peers, no face-to-face encounters with a real teacher.

I recently read several shocking articles that have reinforced my concern about for-profit companies that provide virtual schooling. One must-read is Lee Fang’s remarkable investigative article, titled “How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools.” It is a chilling account of a well-developed campaign to persuade state legislatures to endorse for-profit virtual schools. Led by Patricia Levesque, an experienced lobbyist who works for former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the campaign has scored notable successes in the past year, promoting for-profit virtual charter schools.

Lee Fang seems to have sat in the back row of many a “reform” meeting, quietly taking notes. At a conference last fall in San Francisco, he reports, Levesque recommended that “reformers should ‘spread’ the unions thin ‘by playing offense’ with decoy legislation. Levesque said she planned to sponsor a series of statewide reforms, like allowing taxpayer dollars to go to religious schools by overturning the so-called Blaine Amendment, ‘even if it doesn’t pass ... to keep them busy on that front.’ She also advised paycheck protection, a union-busting scheme, as well as a state-provided insurance program to encourage teachers to leave the union and a transparency law to force teachers unions to show additional information to the public. Needling the labor unions with all these bills, Levesque said, allows certain charter bills to fly ‘under the radar.’”

So, while the unions are fighting to stave off attacks, the virtual charter industry steadily moves forward, almost unnoticed. See also Dana Goldstein’s description of the for-profit charter industry. In Michigan, 80 percent of charters are run by for-profit companies.

What kind of record do these virtual charters (cyber charters) have? Not a very good one. Walt Gardner blogged about these issues last week. He sees this movement as “the stealth campaign to privatize education.” Gardner says there is no evidence to support the claim that students learn more by technology than in the traditional classroom.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal (“My Teacher Is an App”) said that full-time enrollment in cyber charters has grown nationally in the past two years from 175,000 to 250,000 students. It cited a study by the Colorado Department of Education showing that students in cyber charters had lower scores than those in traditional public schools, in reading, writing, and math, in every grade tested. [ADDED BY DIANE AFTER INITIAL POST: There is an ongoing debate in Colorado about the value of cyber charters. Please read the heated comments posted to this NPR commentary from Northern Colorado.]

But, despite evidence that students do worse in cyber schools, for-profit entrepreneurs are vigorously lobbying state legislatures to permit for-profit virtual schools. A recent article in The Washington Post detailed their efforts and included a review of the poor performance of cyber charters, such as “At the Colorado Virtual Academy, which is managed by K12 and has more than 5,000 students, the on-time graduation rate was 12 percent in 2010, compared with 72 percent statewide. That same year, K12’s Ohio Virtual Academy—whose enrollment tops 9,000—had a 30 percent on-time graduation rate, compared with a state average of 78 percent.” But details like these don’t seem to have slowed their momentum. In Idaho, online companies supported the campaign of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who is a strong supporter of virtual instruction.

In Tennessee, one legislator pushed back. Representative Mike Stewart wrote to his colleagues to oppose for-profit virtual schools. He noted that the chief executive officer of the largest chain was paid $2.4 million each year and other executives also made outsize salaries. The promise of the cyber charter to the state, he said, was the prospect of saving money. The virtual charters do not have physical buildings or libraries or ball fields or janitors or nurses. They have class sizes of 50 students per teacher, instead of the 15.7 per teacher in Tennessee’s regular schools. But, he said, the “savings” turn into profits for the company and its shareholders, not returns to the state.

Stewart’s appeal to the Tennessee legislature failed. The legislature authorized for-profit cyber schools, and in addition, it banned teacher collective bargaining, eliminated tenure for future teachers, and removed local oversight of charter schools. Public school teachers have certainly gotten their comeuppance in Tennessee, and the private sector has been unleashed.

Deborah, don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with businesses making a profit when they offer value for goods and services. But there is something about this for-profit education industry that feels unseemly. I find myself uncomfortable about the very idea of making a profit by providing public education. Isn’t it—or shouldn’t it be—a basic public service available to all at public expense? Shouldn’t all the money go directly into improving education rather than paying exorbitant salaries and making money for shareholders?


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