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School Choice: Are We Asking the Tough Questions?
School choice is currently a prevalent policy issue. Each side has many reasons to be for or against it. School choice proponents argue, among other things, that families should not have to wait for school turnaround. If a school is underperforming, families should have the option to choose the school they want, including a private school. The other side argues, among many reasons, that diverting funds away from local public schools will ultimately undermine all of public education, and the allowance for religious schools is a violation of the separation of church and state.

Unfortunately, these days many people do not discuss politics with an eye toward understanding the other side. Things often get unproductively emotional. But if we take a step back with unbiased lenses, each side makes coherent points.

There is one point in this debate, however, that is not discussed as often:
For-profit school business practices. 

I’m not referring to charter schools run by for-profit companies. I’m talking about actual for-profit businesses that are part of the private school sector. As school choice proponents would argue, the laissez faire philosophy of the free and unregulated marketplace is a positive for business and, in turn, for customers. In this case, for students and families.

There are, however, some for-profit school practices that should be examined when considering a broad-based school choice policy. Are these practices really positive for the customers (i.e., students)?

It is not uncommon for many for-profit private schools to implement some or all of these practices:

1. Focus on Standardized Tests: Many for-profit schools pride themselves in marketing and selling to prospective families that their curriculum is a year ahead of the local public schools. Yet, for example, when the standardized test is given, the for-profit private school student who went through the fourth grade curriculum takes the third grade standardized test. That’s similar to a public school third grade student taking the second grade standardized test. This practice would probably not be tolerated in public schools. Public school parents could sue schools for this practice because they can perceive their children’s “achievement” as ambiguous.
2. Picking & Tossing Students: Many for-profit schools have a highly intentional internal policy of ensuring that any student entering must score well on the entrance assessment. At least one colleague who worked in this space called this the “dirty little secret that’s not really a secret.” Their rationale is that they know these students will more than likely perform well in class regardless of the teacher, and most importantly, contribute to the school’s high standardized test scores. As a business that markets high achievement, high scores are critical to maintain. In addition, if a student struggles to keep up with the curriculum, for-profit school students and families are often blamed and asked to leave the school. However, often the real issue is that many of these schools lack the staff with the necessary experience, training, and quality pedagogy to meet the needs of all of its students. It’s easier to put the blame on the student’s “failure” to keep up with the pace.
3. Weak Accreditation: Nonprofit schools tend to use a rigorous accreditation body. For example, on the West Coast, it’s WASC (Western Association of Schools & Colleges).  For-profit schools often use accreditation bodies that are not as rigorous. There’s a strategic reason for this choice. Case in point, WASC checks that all teachers are credentialed. Depending on the state, for-profit schools are able to by-pass this requirement by using a less rigorous accreditation body. Also, rigorous accreditation bodies would most likely put schools on notice for implementing practice #1 described above.
4. Parent Donations & Financial Secrecy: While parents cannot be required to provide donations (e.g., candy sale revenues, fundraisers, and straight-up donations), the reality is that many for-profit schools aggressively ask parents to participate in this activity despite the fact that these schools fail to disclose financials to explain why their profits can’t/should cover costs. As an accountant once explained, no matter how you slice it, these donations in one way or another benefit the owners financially. Nonprofit schools are required to disclose their financials. This is not the case with for-profit schools.

Ardent school choice proponents would argue that these practices are irrelevant. The beauty of school choice is that families can continue to transition to the school they think is best for them. However, choosing a school is not like shopping for a dress at different stores until the right fit is found. It’s a much more complicated and emotional process. An argument could also be made that private school operators should have the freedom in a free marketplace to choose the students they want. By that same token, families should have the freedom to choose a school that picks and chooses its students. Those are valid points. However, in a publicly-funded school choice environment, shouldn't prospective families be fully informed about for-profit school practices before thinking that these schools are the solution to their children's academic and social needs? 

These practices leave many questions unanswered. If tax payer money will be diverted to for-profit schools, then…

• Would students really receive a quality education when the business model is based on producing high standardized test scores as a result of the resources high-income parents bring to the table, and an admissions process of selecting students who will perform well despite the quality of instruction?
• Is the practice of giving students the previous grade’s standardized test (which many researchers could argue is the easier test) ethical? Is marketing these high achievement scores deceptive?
• With a free marketplace approach, both sides can decide if they are the right fit for each other but how would these scenarios make a child feel?: A family gleefully takes their voucher to the for-profit school only to learn that they are not wanted because their entrance assessment result would be considered a risk to the school’s high standardized test scores. Alternatively, a student is admitted but asked to leave with the blame unfairly put directly on him for not keeping up with the pace when it's really more about the lack of quality of instruction?
• Is it right for a profit-business receiving tax payer dollars to request parent donation handouts? Is it right for a profit-business to ask for parent donation handouts, period?

To be fair, I’m sure there are for-profit school operators in the world who are surprised that these practices take place. In the United States at least, these operators need to be prepared to defend themselves if school choice is enacted because like public schools, they will be unfairly lumped with the negativity surrounding the schools in their sector.

One thing I want to make clear is that I’m not against private education. For parents that can afford it, I’ve found that rigorously accredited nonprofit schools serve a positive purpose in our society. But with school choice policy, the public needs to learn more and ask tough questions about the for-profit school sector. We didn’t ask these tough questions for many years when for-profit higher education schools were employing questionable practices to increase their bottom line. As a Marine Corps veteran, I’m deeply disturbed how for-profit schools targeted veterans and essentially stole their hard-earned GI Bill with deceptive marketing, and a high-priced, poor quality “education.” Many of these schools even went after veterans with brain injuries, and military spouses who now are drowning in debt.

I understand that school choice proponents can always bring the argument back about public education’s short-comings. They have a point. But it’s already discussed extensively. It’s constantly in the media, on the Internet, in newspapers, talked about at the barber shop, at the nail salon, and so on. Public schools are required to have a certain level of transparency—it’s why we have the information to criticize them. In the same way we are right to scrutinize and ask tough questions about public education, shouldn’t we do the same with for-profit schools, especially if the intent is to use public funds to pay their required tuition? 

For more information, see this brief video below about charter schools, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and how they relate to school choice.

Click HERE.

1 comment :

  1. Brilliant article!

    For-profit school business practices are disastrous by any measure, and the red herrings of “school choice” and “turnaround time” are just intentional distractions away from that real issue of how to divert more tax money away from vital services and into corporate pockets.

    Follow the money. The more of it there is, the more kids will be hand-selected for admission and then tested to death, the more parents will be either nickel and dimed to death or given preferential access and treatment based on donations, the more administrators will successfully duck rigorous accreditation procedures, and the more society will be able to add the educational system to the growing pile of once-strong social service systems that were gutted by pure greed.

    Instead of amassing yet more wealth on the backs of taxpayers and underpaid teachers, Betsy DeVos and her ilk should start by having to organize a car wash to afford their salaries.


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