NANCY LOOME: Is public education for sale?

By Nancy Loome

Is our children’s education for sale to the highest bidder? Indications are that it could be.
In many states, education policy is being driven by lobbyists for big-money corporations that are profiting from state education dollars through “school choice” initiatives – legislation that sends public school money to for-profit “education” organizations that often run lousy schools on the cheap in order to pay stockholders nice dividends.
It’s a booming industry. For-profits pay handsomely to influence education legislation to benefit their bottom line. Lobbyists aggressively push their agenda, donating to political campaigns through PACs that aren’t required to reveal their funders, running multi-million dollar ad campaigns to influence public opinion, and funding foundations that push their for-profit agenda.
K-12, Inc. is the largest of several for-profit virtual school companies that are making money hand over fist from state tax dollars, despite an abysmal record of student achievement.
A study of Pennsylvania schools found that 100% of the state’s cyber schools, including K-12, Inc., had “significantly worse” outcomes than their traditional public school counterparts, for which the virtual companies were paid $10,000 per student from public school coffers. In turn, K-12, Inc.’s revenues for the first quarter of this fiscal year increased by 14.4% to $221.1Million. Last year, K-12, Inc. paid its CEO $5 million.
In Georgia earlier this year, out-of-state groups funded a $3 million ad campaign to push a constitutional amendment broadening Georgia’s charter school statute. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the initiative’s two primary backers were Families for Public School Options, which received 71 percent of its funding from out-of-state corporations and foundations (including K-12, Inc.), and Georgia Public School Families for Amendment One, funded entirely by PublicSchoolOptions.org of Arlington, Virginia – not a single Georgia public school family.
And then there’s Florida. Since 1999, Florida has invested billions of dollars in real education reform that has catapulted the state’s student achievement into the realm of some of the most successful countries. Yet, rather than promote the achievement-based initiatives responsible for its improvements, Florida’s most vocal “education reform” advocates, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, attribute Florida’s success to school choice.
Research shows otherwise. Florida’s own study of its “opportunity scholarships” (neo-vouchers) shows that children who received vouchers and attended private schools had outcomes virtually identical to the children who remained in traditional public schools. This year, almost 50 percent of Florida’s “F” rated schools are charter schools – despite the fact that charters make up only 11 percent of Florida’s schools. Many are for-profits.
Turns out that the Foundation for Excellence in Education has a lobbying arm and Super PAC, the Foundation for Florida’s Future Action Committee – all backed by a donor list that reads like a Who’s Who of the virtual charter school and for-profit crowd. They are raking in millions.
It’s about money, not educating children, and it’s made its way to Mississippi. K-12, Inc.’s lobbyists are wooing Mississippi’s elected officials, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education has made multiple trips to Mississippi to advise legislators on education reform legislation.
Draft legislation outlined in a recent meeting of the House and Senate education committees permits for-profits to run charters and allows cyber charter schools.
Last month, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) launched a campaign to reverse the negative effect that the for-profit agenda has had on charter school initiatives. It calls for states to tighten charter school laws to increase the likelihood of charter school success and to do a better job of holding charters and their authorizers accountable.
NACSA said in its press release, “Many authorizers are, in fact, getting it right – and those are the ones with the best schools, including many that are educating high numbers of at-risk students. But too many others are making decisions too influenced by politics, faulty analysis, and bad laws.”
Research abounds that tells us what works and what doesn’t regarding charter schools, vouchers, and school reform in general. Let’s hope our legislators pay more heed to research than to those whose bottom line is their own bottom line. Let’s hope our children’s future isn’t really for sale.
Nancy Loome is executive director of The Parents’ Campaign, a parent group that advocates for non-profit charter schools in underperforming school zones and other research-based education reform initiatives.