An Explosion in Lobbying around For-Profit K-12 Programs

My friends at The Nation have published a really fascinating investigative piece by Lee Fang about the explosion in lobbying around K-12 for-profit, virtual education, particularly targeting charter schools. This is a sector of the education world that's very difficult to track, because every state has different, often vague laws about how for-profit companies can be involved in public education.

As of 2008, 13 states allowed charter schools to partner with for-profit companies for facilities, 17 states allowed partnerships for services, and three states actually allowed for-profit companies to directly open a charter school. But even in states where for-profits are not allowed to hold a charter themselves, they are sometimes allowed to spin-off an affiliated non-profit to hold the charter, which will then contract with the for-profit for services. (This is prevalent in Ohio). Here in New York, no charter opened after 2010 can be managed by a for-profit, but in Michigan, 80 percent of charters are for-profit.

What do for-profit education services for public K-12 schools look like? Sometimes they are online-learning classes or tutoring services offered to students enrolled in brick-and-mortar schools. Sometimes they are completely virtual schools, like the one described by Katherine Boo in her 2007 New Yorker piece about the collapse of Manual High School in Denver:

Ashley, who had been accepted into a small, competitive program at another public high school, was uneasy, too, and, anyway, there were flyers at Wal-Mart about a publicly funded online charter school a few blocks from home. One of the people involved with the program had been a Denver Nugget, and his daughter was the R. & B. singer India.Arie. Students did their work on the Internet, and it was graded by teachers in an office somewhere else. Plus, they could train to be nurses or doctors, or something; the details weren’t clear. Still, after a stressful year, the chance to stay near home, with Internet access and relational proximity to India.Arie, seemed soothing, so two of Manual’s star students changed their plans.

As Fang notes, online learning can be an important supplement to real-world classrooms; I think this is especially true for advanced high school students, who should be given the chance to jump ahead in the curriculum, perhaps through video lectures from college professors. The problem is that the studies we have of typical online learning outcomes haven't shown very impressive results. Fang writes:

A recent study of virtual schools in Pennsylvania conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University revealed that students in online schools performed significantly worse than their traditional counterparts. Another study, from the University of Colorado in December 2010, found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standards outlined by No Child Left Behind, compared with 54.9 percent of brick-and-mortar schools. For White Hat Management, the politically connected Ohio for-profit operating both traditional and virtual charter schools, the success rate under NCLB was a mere 2 percent, while for schools run by K12 Inc., it was 25 percent. A major review by the Education Department found that policy reforms embracing online courses “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.

So there's good reason to proceed with caution, which is difficult to do when folks like Jeb Bush are traveling the nation advocating for absurd laws like one recently passed in Florida, which requires every single public high school student to enroll in at least one online course before graduation. This is certainly putting the cart–technological "innovation"–before the horse, which should be a quality education provided by effective teachers.

6 thoughts on “An Explosion in Lobbying around For-Profit K-12 Programs

  1. Gideon

    This is a completely confusing post that has nothing to do with a heading related to lobbying, which is barely mentioned in the narrative.

    Moreover, the facts are wrong. No charter in NY has ever been allowed to be “for-profit.” They are incorporated as non-profit education corporations governed by a board of trustees. In the past, a non-profit charter school could contract with a for-profit management company to run the school. The most recent charter law prohibits charter schools from contracting with for-profits for management of the school, but they can still use for-profit vendors to provide services, just like traditional district schools.

    This post also conflates online learning with for-profit issues. Not all online learning is run by for-profit companies and there is extraordinary variation in what online learning means; it includes taking a single class online at a traditional school to learning from home from a virtual school. So cherry picking a couple of studies doesn’t really illuminate this issue. These kind of generalizations really don’t serve the debate well.

  2. Dana

    Gideon, The Nation piece gives many details about lobbying, so I’d encourage you to read that if you are interested. I don’t know of any large studies showing that online learning improves achievement over traditional classrooms in the same subject; the studies Fang cites are widely recognized. If you have other sources I or my readers should check out, please do post them.

  3. Bill Tucker


    There are clearly bad actors in the field. And, I share your concerns about transparency and improper incentives, not just for private corporations, but also for traditional districts and administrators that are often tasked with oversight responsibilities. But Gideon is right in pointing out that we should distinguish among both providers and types of programs.

    One of the better and very accessible summaries of research/evidence on these issues can be found in the just-published Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning, starting on page 40.

    Essentially, studies that only compare virtual learning with traditional instruction, though, like those that compare charter schools with traditional public schools, mask many of the most interesting questions about virtual education. Marianne Bakia, senior education researcher at SRI International and one of the authors of the 2009 Department of Education meta-analysis on this subject, appropriately cautions that to be useful, research needs to be specific as to “what works for whom, what implementation practices matter, and why.”

  4. Gideon

    I’m not an expert in this field and don’t know the research well, but red flags go up when I see only a few studies limited to a few states cited. The US Department of Education has a 2010 report: Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. The conclusion: “The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

  5. Gideon

    I’m no fan of the corporate influence on education (e.g., the textbook industry’s stranglehold on curriculum). However, whether we like it or not, I think technology is going to have a disruptive influence on education, just as it has had on every other sector of society. It’s astonishing that schools have managed to remain so static for so long, especially as our expectations for them have risen. Given your recent nuanced critique of the motivations of philanthropists in education reform, I’m surprised to see what looks like a simplistic conflating of online learning and for-profit issues. For example, charter schools are in fact not for-profit, though they may hire for-profit companies, just as traditional district schools hire for-profit companies. Where’s the outrage over districts that hire for-profit transportation companies or staff developers rather than do it themselves. Certainly there are lots of companies looking at education technology as a good place to make some profit, but we should be focused on the efficacy and value of the educational technology, not where it’s coming from.


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