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Charters and the Profit Motive

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Jack Schneider is joined in conversation by award-winning researcher and teacher Julian Vasquez Heilig

Jack Schneider: The American public hears a lot of different messages about charter schools. On the one hand, they hear that charters are a kind of silver bullet solution—an answer to the failures of urban education. On the other, they hear that charters are harming public education and promoting segregation. What's a citizen to think, given the polarized rhetoric? 

Julian Vasquez Heilig: Charters are quite diverse. Just the word can set off critics and supporters. The challenge, as I see it, is to decouple the persona of charters from the positive and negative realities of their diversity.

Schneider: It sounds like you think that charters have a role to play in K-12 education—as an option alongside district schools. So what's the role you envision? And what policy measures—caps on charters, stricter charter renewal processes, etc. —do you see as appropriate mechanisms for bringing that reality about?

Heilig: The types of charters and the chartering process varies greatly from state to state. So I think we have to decide as a nation what types of charters we really desire. For example, compare for-profit charters with community-based charters.

The issue with for-profit charters is the same issue that we often face with corporate malfeasance—the profit motive can overwhelm honesty and integrity. We thereby sacrifice serving students regardless of their circumstance, an important aspect of our national social contract for public education. We must also consider the quasi-private policies found in many corporate charters that have implications for equity and excellence.

By comparison, a charter school like Travis Heights Elementary in Austin, Texas, where the local school district, parents, teachers union, and faith community came together to build a community-based charter school, is a welcome contrast to corporate, profit-driven charter schools.

Schneider: I agree that private interests, concerned foremost with the bottom line, can be problematic in education. But the vast majority of charters are operated on a non-profit basis. Your pool gets substantially bigger when you conflate for-profit schools with so-called "corporate" charters. Yet that's a move that seems designed to mislead. Corporate-style governance, though I don't particularly favor it, is quite different from corporate-style pursuit of profit.

I also want to push back on why we need to decide what kind of charters we want. Isn't the whole point of charters that they will serve as sites of experimentation? In my mind, the bigger problem we're facing with charters is that we are increasingly supporting only one type of charter—the CMO-managed model, designed to produce high test scores.

Heilig: Charter governance differs across states. For example, in Michigan, 61% of charters are run on a for-profit basis. An important question for the nation is whether we think charters on a for-profit basis are a desirable approach. We also need to consider whether communities should be able to veto corporate charters and for-profit charters if they so choose. 

I also think we need to reframe our conception of choice. Why can't communities access desirable characteristics in their neighborhood traditional schools? Why have Louisiana and Michigan created achievement authorities that turn a blind ear to community input? Who is actually doing the choosing for our communities? Also, we must continue to grapple with the question of whether the freedom that charters have received is being abused. Equity and access for students of different kinds and workplace conditions for faculty and staff are important questions that we are continually grappling with in our ongoing research.

Schneider: Let me try to separate some of these threads out.

Let's first wrap up the discussion of for-profit vs. non-profit charters.

You argue that states like Michigan have a large number of for-profit charters. And that's true. But again, the majority of charters nationwide are run on a non-profit basis. So is your primary problem with the profit motive? Or is it with charters in general; because it's important to note that, whatever the overlap, those are two different things.

Heilig: I don't think we should limit ourselves to the current state of charters. Instead, I think we need to consider what the evolution of charters will be. Yes it is true that in most states charters are not for-profit. But we already have plenty of data and research to understand the pitfalls of for-profit charters in Michigan, Arizona and elsewhere. The Detroit Free Press recently conducted several investigative reports of charters in Michigan that uncovered wasteful spending, lack of accountability, nepotism, and corruption. Further, overall charter performance was no better than traditional public school performance.

Schneider: Those are important points to make. But the evidence doesn't point to things tipping in that direction. Again, if there is something to fear in the future of charter schools, I think it's the emergence of a single model—a one-size-fits-all charter that choice advocates will claim fits every school. To me that's a much more realistic—though perhaps less frightening—outcome than the spread of for-profit charters.

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