Opinion
School Choice & Charters Opinion

What Profit a Man (Or, in this Case, a Charter School Operator)....

By Sara Mead — March 19, 2012 4 min read

Parent Trigger is a hot topic these days, and the New York Times got a group of folks on opposing sides to duke it out over the topic this weekend at their “room for debate” page. It’s a tough debate: For all we hear from some quarters that low-performing, high-poverty schools are unfairly judged and are in fact doing the best they can given the economic and demographic circumstances of their students and their troubled or uncaring parents--the reality is that a lot of those supposedly uncaring parents actually care a lot about their kids’ education, and unfortunately many of see on a daily basis, far better than any external analyst, exactly how schools are persistently failing to deliver decent instruction, reinforcing low expectations, and in some cases actively harming students. Parent trigger gives parents who have been disempowered in all sorts of areas of their lives an opportunity to do something about that. The problem, as my colleague Andy Rotherham wrote recently, is what happens next: There’s a huge gap between voting against what’s currently going on in a school, and actually getting in a better performing team to lead and operate it going forward.

That’s part of what I think Amy Wilkins is saying in her contribution to the debate, but unfortunately, she decides to focus on concerns that Parent Trigger will serve as a doorway for “for-profit” “businesses” to take over more public schools. This seems unfortunate to me: Ultimately the issue shouldn’t be whether organizations operating public schools are for-profit, non-profit, or local school districts--it should be whether they’re educating kids effectively. All the available evidence suggests that legal structure of the entity is no guarantee here one way or another.

Amy is right that some for-profit charter school operators, such as White Hat Management, have a pretty sketchy track record, on both quality and fundamental issues of public accountability and financial transparency. But this isn’t universally the case: National Heritage Academies, for example, is a for-profit that actually operates school that pass the “would you let a child you cared about go to this school?” test, and a 2004 evaluation by Rick Hess reached positive findings about their outcomes (admittedly, they’ve struggled more with schools serving populations similar to those Parent Trigger advocates are focused on). Further, unlike for-profit providers in higher education, who are in no way held accountable for their results, all charter schools, including those operated by for-profit providers, are subject to the same state assessments as all other public schools. If the schools’ academic performance is lousy, or the school is misusing public funds or otherwise failing its obligations of the public school, their authorizer can and should close them. That doesn’t happen as often as it should--which is a bigger issue hardly limited to for-profit providers--but it’s still a far cry from the lack of accountability that enables for-profit malfeasance to flourish in the higher ed space.

Amy contrasts “for-profit” charter operators with “community-based organizations that represent the families stuck in failing schools,” but being community-based is no guarantee a charter school will be effective. Indeed, there are numerous examples of charter started by community-based groups that struggled and ultimately closed because those groups failed to fully grasp or lacked capacity to meet the responsibilities and challenges involved in running a school.

Amy also notes that “businesses...run 84 percent of the charter schools in [Michigan].” That’s technically true but actually serves to underscore why the for-profit/community-based distinction is a slippery one here. Because of quirks in Michigan’s charter law and inequitable funding charters receive, it’s actually highly advantageous for charters to employ an “Education Service Provider,” the “businesses” Amy is referring to, because this enables them to avoid paying very high contributions to the state pension system. As a result, many charter schools that are in-fact stand-alone, community-based schools are technically operated by for-profit ESPs.* That’s not to say these schools are better or worse, just that it underscores why this stuff is complicated and sharp distinctions based on legal structure alone can be misleading.

Now, some people argue that for-profit organizations have no place in public education as a matter of principle. At some point, this gets beyond things one can reasonably argue, but it is worth asking where people draw the line here. After all, no one questions when schools purchase desks, chalk, books, school bus services, and a host of other goods from for-profit companies.

*This is also a good reminder of how quirks in a state’s charter law and broader ecosystem can have unintended impacts on charter quality and supply that are worth paying more attention to.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.