Reading the list of out-of-state contributors to the campaign to pass Amendment 1, the state charter-schools amendment, you get the sense that an old-fashioned gold rush would begin in Georgia the moment the amendment is approved.
J.C. Huizenga, founder of Michigan-based National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter school operator, has contributed $25,000; his company contributed a matching $25,000. Charter Schools USA, based in Florida, contributed $50,000 as well. D.A. Davidson, a financial services firm based in Great Falls, Montana that touts itself as “a recognized leader in charter school financing,” has so far given $5,000. And K12 Inc., a for-profit provider of online classes and “full-time online public schools,” has kicked in $100,000.
Those account only for contributions made through Sept. 21; the final campaign-disclosure reports may include additional big-dollar donations from companies eager to enter Georgia’s public-school marketplace.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong about for-profit companies operating in the education sector. However, despite the fervor of those who preach that competition solves all problems, there’s nothing inherently good about it either. None of the countries that outperform the United States in education, for example, do so through the for-profit model.
In addition, the overall shoddy performance of for-profit colleges and universities here in the United States provides stark evidence that when the profit motive conflicts with academic standards, profit takes precedence. A Senate report released this summer found that tuition at for-profit colleges averages six times that of community colleges, while the education provided is greatly inferior. Only a small fraction of students who enroll at for-profit colleges actually graduate, and those who do get degrees usually find their diplomas aren’t worth much. That explains in part why students at for-profit schools account for almost 50 percent of student-loan defaults, even though they make up just 10 percent of the nation’s student body.
And why are for-profit colleges generally inferior? In short, the $32 billion industry has found it more lucrative to compete on grounds other than education quality. According to the Senate report, the nation’s 30 largest for-profit schools spend just 17 percent of their revenue on student instruction, while spending 22.7 percent on marketing to keep fresh bodies coming in.
There’s every reason to worry that similar dynamics will play out in k-12 education. Take K12 Inc., the company that has so far contributed $100,000 to opening up the Georgia market. In Florida, where the company operates in 43 school districts, a typical K12 high school teacher may have as many as 275 online students per class, which enhances profitability if not education. Last month, Florida officials launched an investigation into charges that K12 also uses teachers uncertified for the classes they teach and that company officials asked employees to cover up that fact.
It’s also important to consider the ethical culture in which the Georgia education gold rush would take place. On Sunday, the AJC reported that the State Properties Commission — headed by Gov. Nathan Deal — decided that the best place to locate a new, $13.6 million State Poultry Laboratory was in a Hall County industrial park. In what was clearly just a happy coincidence, the park turns out to be owned in part by Deal’s close friend and campaign manager.
If an appointed commission is given the power to create state charter schools run by private enterprise, I suspect the potential for many more such happy coincidences would increase. It’s interesting, for example, that under Amendment 2, also on the November ballot, the State Properties Commission would for the first time be given constitutional authority to sign real-estate leases of up to 20 years.
There are good arguments in favor of that proposal. However, it’s also true that if one were contemplating a spate of new state-authorized charter schools, the ability to sign long-term leases with developers would be very useful in getting the necessary facilities built. Again, just a coincidence I’m sure.
– Jay Bookman