Local Viewpoints
2:21 pm
Wed July 30, 2014

Public Schools Should Not Be Profit Centers

  For-Profit virtual (or cyber-based) charter schools, funded with public taxpayer's money, entered the New Mexico public education system with the establishment of two schools:

1.     New Mexico Virtual Academy (2012), authorized by the Farmington Municipal School District, provides education for grades 6-12.  It is headquartered at the Farmington Learning Center and, through a contract authorized by the NM Public Education Department, is managed by K12 Inc, a company that trades on the U.S. Stock Exchange as NYSE:LRN, (4-Traders.com, 2012).

2.     NM Connections Academy (2013-2014), located in Santa Fe and authorized by NM Public Education Commission, provides education for grades 4-12.  It is owned by Pearson, an English-based company that entered the U.S. education market in the year 2000 by providing services for scoring tests and school management systems.

Should we be concerned about privatizing education and its effect on our public education system?  

The most recent annual data show national education expenditure for U.S. public elementary and secondary schools as $638 billion (U.S. Department of Education 2009-2010 data), a sum that represents a huge untapped potential source of new profit for the private sector whose primary goal is maximizing profits, often at the expense of its workforce, or in the case of public education, the students.  For-profit businesses have had a continuing presence in the education system by providing textbooks, classroom furniture, transportation, low- and high-tech equipment from blackboards to smartboards, and education services that include scoring tests.  These services and products have been provided to an already existing agency running schools and have not contributed to the tough business of turning failing schools or students around, which is often the stated goal of the virtual charter school.  There are 97 for-profit educational management organizations (EMOs) focused on education reform in the U.S. by managing 840 schools with a total student enrollment of 462,926 (National Education Policy Center, 2011-2012).

Virtual education has moved to the top of the list of education reforms.  As technology has improved, computer-based (or long distance) learning has made inroads into the education market.  Two champions of computer-based education are former Florida Governor Jeb Bush through his Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) by writing its Virtual Public Schools Act and circulating it to state legislators for adoption.   In the debate, it is argued that virtual education will revolutionize teaching and learning, dramatically reduce the cost of education and increase the availability of high quality education.  However, research data at this point does not support those claims.

Many concerns have been raised by the entrance of for-profit virtual charter schools into the education system.  Perhaps greatest is that already limited public education dollars are transferred into bottom lines of companies that sometimes choose to use those dollars for political and advertising purposes rather than education.  For-profit charter schools are not required, as K-12 public schools are, to answer to or be supervised by professionally trained administrators or to be overseen by a publicly elected school board.  Research evidence to date indicates accountability of the for-profits regarding accurate student enrollment, classroom attendance, and withdrawal tied to accurate billing by for-profits is often problematic and sometimes results in lawsuits  There often are no requirements for hiring professionally trained teachers who must meet each state's standards.  Qualifications of teachers employed by the for-profits, therefore, raise questions not only about credentialing but also about teachers attending scheduled virtual interactive classroom time, maintaining normal classroom sizes for the teachers, and adequately compensating them.

Students need to be self-motivated to attend computer-based classes from their homes or learning centers.  It is questionable whether for-profit virtual schools filter out students who are not suited for this type of education.  Two other important issues that are deeply concerning are the relatively few enrolled Black, Hispanic, and special education students and the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) measures, state performance rankings and graduation rates of full-time virtual schools that often lag significantly behind traditional public schools. 

At present, available research is sparse and little is known about the effectiveness of full-time online education generally or about individual approaches specifically.  Because these are privately operated businesses, the data is considered proprietary; therefore, it is hard to obtain. 

Because for-profit virtual education has an increasing presence on the menu of school choice options and for-profit virtual charter schools have been introduced in the State of New Mexico, the League of Women Voters of Greater Las Cruces researched this school choice option.  The League continues to supports public education and to oppose for-profit virtual charter schools as a school choice option.  The discussion above gives a brief synopsis of a full research paper available on www.lwvglc.org.

Bonnie Burn, Co-Chair, Education Committee, League of Women Voters of Greater Las Cruces

Tel:  (575) 526-0013; Email:  burnb@comcast.net