September 3, 2020

The For-Profit Problem

By Bellwether

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Fordham’s Jessica Poiner takes a look at Biden and charter school policy But it seems like there is a more basic puzzle everyone dances around – Biden wants to ban for-profit charter schools, that sounds sensible but like many policies the specifics are more tricky.*

A few things are true.

  1. Overall for-profit charter schools underperform the sector. Some data on that in this Bellwether deck.
  2. These schools are concentrated in a few places and not representative of the sector overall.
  3. Not every for-profit school is lousy, some are quite good. Ecological fallacy in how various actors talk about this.

And of course, different kids need different things and thrive in different environments.

So, banning for-profit charters would undoubtably clean up some bottom feeders (even accounting for the point just above about school diversity, it’s a messy part of the sector). But it would also sweep up some schools that are working for kids and families right now. Here’s a look at that from a few years ago. To some extent it is also at odds with an ethos of being just for good schools and against bad ones.

That means one option is saying, sure, that harm is outweighed by the benefits. Defensible. Another is saying, the way through here is better charter authorizing rather than banning broad categories of schools. Clean up the bad actors but leave space for the good ones. Also defensible, if politically tricky, though it can be done. What’s the role of choices parents are making? And what does either approach mean for various factions that claim to put kids and families first before adult politics?

Not a straightforward problem, but let’s have that conversation.

*There are multiple for-profit configurations, some that different states allow or don’t, so the specifics of any ban in terms of how broad it could be – would it include management organizations that work for non-profit schools, for instance  – remains to be seen.

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