School Choice

A Practical Approach to Closing For-Profit Charter Schools

National for-profit charter school operators have increasingly been in the press lately, and not for good reasons. Based on how often for-profit operators embarrass the charter sector, many are willing to say it’s time to ban them. If charter haters would stop arguing and acting as if all charters are just like the worst for-profit charter operator, a lot of people might support state bans on for-profits, or at least they wouldn’t put much work into fighting them. But the haters want us all to pretend that the 87 percent of charter schools that are nonprofits don’t exist. They also want us to abandon establishing charter schools entirely. So neither side is able to focus on for-profits long enough to make any deal work. I recommend a different strategy. Instead of throwing all for-profits under the bus, or reflexively defending them because they are part of our movement, we should insist on evidence that any large charter school operator is good for kids before granting them more charters. Once an operator is running 10 schools, it is fair to insist that they demonstrate those schools are good before we grant them more. If a firm’s first 10 schools are horrible pits of academic failure, or even of mediocrity, let’s agree to stop giving them more kids to hurt. This would hold nonprofits accountable as much as for-profits. I am confident that in the future, strong operators that want to work at a large scale will play a huge role in the charter sector and public education as a whole. Insisting on evidence won’t stop this growth. It will safeguard it. Meanwhile for many charter school operators trying to make a profit now, the result will feel like a ban. But 10 years from now, when we look back on this period, we should see that the operators we decided to leave behind were not excluded because they tried to make money, but because they didn’t teach kids very well. Jessica Huseman recently explained in Slate how creating a national for-profit network of schools that is good is very difficult. She identifies two important points:
  1. For-profits mistakenly assume that inefficiency leads to bad public schools. They thought national scale and business savvy would allow them to out-perform the competition. Chalk it up to outsiders’ hubris, but any school leader will tell you that running good schools is much more complicated than getting the operations to fit together efficiently.
  2. Education is shaped by state and local context. The variation in rules robbed the national operators of the efficiency they thought they could provide in the first place. Both the profit and quality quickly evaded most of them.
In addition to the reasons why for-profits fail, it helps to understand what low-quality for-profits often do once everybody figures out how terrible they are. The largest and fastest growing piece of for-profit action is among full-time cyber schools. The analysis from Slate comes on the heels of a piece by former Tennessee commissioner, Kevin Huffman, who outlined in painful detail the political stratagems the nation’s largest for-profit operator, K12 Inc., engages in to protect lousy schools. He focused on Tennessee, but the actions are played out nationwide. Huffman’s piece came after a study of abysmal student achievement in full-time cyber schools done by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO).

What's the Big Deal?

I have spent the last four years in state capitals trying to enact policies that proposed a deal: Expand the charter school sector and protect charter school autonomy in exchange for holding schools to high standards. The most vehement opponents to those proposals were the paid lobbyists of for-profit operators. In some places they didn’t want competition when other schools opened up and were allowed to grow, and they certainly weren’t interested in merit-based oversight. Many observers accurately describe for-profit operators’ structural obstacles to success, the terrible results that too many of them achieve, and the political challenges facing those who try to intervene after their failure. My experience adds to my own skepticism of for-profits. But all these unfortunate details are not as important as an individual operator’s results. And we could solve most of these problems if we simply made decisions about which operators get to open additional schools based on the performance of their current schools. So what do we do next? I recommend authorizers and states insist on independent, third-party evaluations of all large operators that run more than a dozen schools or serve more than 10,000 kids. For the bottom-feeding, low-quality, for-profit operators, the result is likely the same as if we just banned them. But children deserve good schools, regardless of tax structure. Asking about how well anything works for kids is where our attention belongs.
Alex Medler is Senior Director of the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) with Safal Partners. Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement. Through Safal Partners, Medler also advises foundations, state education agencies, charter authorizers and other clients in the U.S. and overseas. Prior to ...

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