Keep the profit out of education

Given the mad rush by the General Assembly to privatize out state’s public education system, you might think there was money to be made hand over fist in the operation of charter schools. And indeed, that may be so, but it will be at the expense of our state’s human capital.

The basic premise of our state’s public education system is that we, as a people, believe it to be our mutual obligation — and a smart investment — to provide every child with a quality education that will prepare him or her to become a productive citizen. So, why can’t we rely on for-profit businesses to deliver on this core value?

The answer is simple economics: In a free market economy, there is no profit in providing a quality education to students who need it most.

Note that I did not say “providing an education.” There are plenty of ways to make money by delving into taxpayer public education funds and delivering a sub-par experience to communities who have little power or say in the matter. Just take a look at the track records of some of the virtual charter school operators who are invading our state, or at some of the for-profit “Education Management Organizations” that wish to operate many of our state’s charter schools. These companies don’t have reputations for providing quality to those most in need.

The fact is high-need students need extra services — not just the academic support of tutors and smaller classes and mentors, but wrap-around services like healthcare, food and counseling that make up for the setbacks that come from living in poverty. In a school district like mine, where nearly half the students receive free or reduced price lunch, providing the services that are part and parcel of a quality education is expensive.

For a business, using underfunded sources of tax dollars to provide all of the necessary services to people and make a profit on top of it — well, that’s downright crazy talk. If you can’t charge your customer — the students and their families — and you can’t charge the middleman (in this case, the state), then where will you get the revenue to deliver the high quality education these students need so desperately?

To put it simply, you won’t. Instead, you’ll work with the fees you can wrestle from the state, and trim everything in sight so that you can turn a profit.

Many for-profit charter operators — and some nonprofit ones — will take a different route, “cherry picking” the students whose families can engage in a way that makes the school profitable — by providing extra fees, free volunteer labor, or at-home educational support. That’s the equivalent of any luxury brand in the market place, and it’s a proven business model. However, those that choose this route aren’t doing a thing to deliver on public education’s obligation to deliver a high-quality experience for all kids.

The laws of the free-market economy dictate that businesses identify whatever market niche they please to offer their goods to consumers. But public education is not a consumer good like clothing or cars. It’s a fundamental tenet of democracy. It’s the single most important investment we can make, and it’s an investment we should make in every child.

Our neighbors in Tennessee have placed a ban on for-profit charter school operators. So have Mississippi, New York, Rhode Island and New Mexico. Leaders in these states have questioned the wisdom of handing taxpayer dollars to for-profit operators who might use those funds to open charters in other states. Others believe that individuals and grassroots organizations in their states have the wisdom and expertise for operating charters. Others question the morality of using taxpayer dollars to pay off private investors.

Perhaps these states go too far in banning for-profits altogether. As a friend of mine in Tennessee who used to own a for-profit charter company explains, “Education is a fundamental tenet of democracy, but the government doesn’t have to always be the provider. However, government must fund it to ensure high-quality and regulate it to weed out bad actors, both nonprofit and for-profit.”

That makes sense. High levels of investment and strict quality standards would do a great deal to improve public education for all students – whether delivered by public or private operators, in traditional or charter schools. But in a state like North Carolina, where our General Assembly seems hell-bent on underfunding public education and deregulating everything, it is surprising that any company with an understanding of the resources required to deliver quality public education to high-need students would even venture over the border. Instead, one has to wonder how and where the companies clamoring for for-profit charters are planning to make the cuts required to secure profits — and what price our students will pay as a result.

Betsey Russell is a nonprofit communications consultant who lives in Asheville.