Blog: The Educated Reporter

For-Profit Companies Getting Big Slice of Public Ed Pie, With Mixed Results

When it comes to showing Adequate Yearly Progress, virtual public schools operated by for-profit companies are falling short, according to a new report by the National Education Policy Center. (Click here for the link.)

The report, released today, found just 27.4 percent of virtual schools operated by for-profit companies (using public dollars) made AYP last year. The results were significantly stronger for the bricks-and-mortar public schools managed by the for-profit EMOs: 51.8 percent made AYP, which is about the same success rate as traditional public schools. Overall, charter schools operated by nonprofit EMOs had a better success rate on AYP, with 56.4 percent meeting state standards.

There were some interesting statistics in the report, including that 35 percent of all charter schools are currently operated by for-profit and nonprofit “Education Management Organizations,” known as EMOs. That figure is likely to top 50 percent in the next few years, according to Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor of education and the report’s lead author.

There are more than a few caveats needed when looking at these types of reports. First of all, as Miron (and his co-author Jessica L. Urschel) make clear in the report’s introduction, AYP is a “crude indicator.” The measure of what constitutes adequate academic achievement varies widely from state to state, making comparisons difficult.

Another issue is comparing charter school students to their peers at “regular” public campuses. This is a point of contention among charter school advocates, critics and researchers. There’s often an assumption that charter schools are more likely to serve at-risk students, in part because so many of them operate in high-poverty and high-minority urban neighborhoods. But when I raised this point with Miron in an interview earlier this week, he challenged the premise of the argument.

Miron, who has evaluated charter schools in multiple states, said he typically finds charter schools “actually have less disadvantaged students than the local district population and fewer children with special needs …There are certainly examples of charter schools that are dedicated to serving the neediest students. On the whole I’d contend that’s not the case.”

I’ve written recently on this blog about the idea that charter schools engage in what critics sometimes refer to as “skimming.” Charter schools are able to turn away students with behavioral problems or expel those whose parents fail to comply with “contracts” mandating involvement in their children’s learning. Privately managed (and publicly funded) virtual schools, including K-12 and Connections Academy, have become tremendously popular among the home-schooling community, families that are typically able to have at least one adult at home to supervise instruction. “They’re not the typical disadvantaged family,” Miron said.

One of the tricky things about education research is deciphering whether there’s a motive attached — if the founders or researchers themselves come with a bias. I asked Miron about this, noting that he’s perceived by some people in education circles as being skeptical about choice and market-oriented school reform. He acknowledged that the perception exists and might be used as an excuse to give less weight to the report’s findings. In reality, there was a conscious effort to keep the report “devoid of interpretation” and let the data speak for itself, Miron said.


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