In Indiana, schools called Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy are finally shutting down after officials determined they inflated their enrollment figures by 50%, billing the state for as much as $40 million for students who didn’t enroll or didn’t earn credits.
In California, two businessmen have been charged with conspiracy, misappropriation of public funds and other offenses for a scam that involved opening 19 online schools and funneling $50 million in state education funds to companies that they controlled.
And in Louisiana, nearly half of the senior class at John F. Kennedy High School was found to be ineligible for graduation after officials discovered widespread grade-fixing and other problems.
What do Indiana Virtual School, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, the 19 California schools and John F. Kennedy High School have in common? They all are nonprofit charter schools. At least on paper.
So, we have to wonder: When presidential candidates say they are against for-profit charter schools, what exactly do they mean?
Charter schools weren’t much of a factor in this week’s Democratic debates. But during the campaign, Bernie Sanders has called for a ban on for-profit charter schools, and Joe Biden proposed blocking federal funding for them. Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Tim Ryan, Cory Booker and Michael Bennet have come out against for-profit charters in one way or another.
The problem is, nearly all charter schools are set up as nonprofit organizations. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 12% are managed by for-profit education management organizations, or EMOs. But the schools themselves are nonprofits. Except in Arizona and California, state laws require it.
It’s true that some charter schools generate profits. Indiana Virtual School paid millions of dollars to companies controlled by the school’s founder and his son for management and technology services. Other charter schools have paid inflated rents and fees to real estate companies with which they are affiliated. And some of the national charter school EMOs are big and profitable enough to pay seven-figure executive compensation packages.
But it’s hard to see how the presidential candidates would go about banning or regulating those situations. Would they outlaw for-profits like K12 Inc. and Academic but allow nonprofits like KIPP and Success Academy on the basis of their tax status? Would they prohibit charter schools from contracting for services with for-profit management or technology firms? How would that work?
At any rate, substantive discussion of charter school policy should go beyond profits and address more basic questions: Do charter schools help or hurt public schools? Do they undermine the concept of public education as a public good? Do they serve all students? How are they monitored and held accountable? Why do some seem to be highly effective while others clearly are not?
Taking a stand against for-profit charter schools doesn’t answer those questions. If presidential candidates are going to talk about charter schools, they should drop the easy answers.