Opinion » Bill Cope

Crumbling Foundations 4

They're trying to sell us what!?


Six hundred billion dollars. Billion. Let me put that another way: $600,000,000,000.

Keep that figure in mind as we examine one reason so many rich people have the hots for such phenomena as charters schools, vouchers, online education and other alternatives to the American public school system that have sprung up--and no doubt will continue to--like dandelions in a distressed lawn.

I don't mean to imply that all this concern and consternation over the condition of education in our country might be founded on lust for wealth only. I'm suggesting it is an explanation we can't rule out. Because, let's face it, as the hit/miss record for those alternatives to public ed. comes increasingly into focus, we find that there is little to get excited about, and possibly much to be alarmed about.

Online charters schools, for instance--and for our purposes here, let me focus on the performance of K12 Inc., one of the largest and most powerful corporate providers of online instruction. How confident would you be in K12 Inc.--as either a parent or a taxpayer--after hearing the following experiences of teachers who had worked for that company? In this case, from a former teacher at the K12 Agora Cyber Charter School in Pennsylvania who had been assigned 300 students:

"A huge portion of my students never showed up or did anything. I have no clue what happened to them, though I have no doubt Agora was charging the state for them."

Or this, from an ex-teacher in the Colorado Virtual Academy, another K12 Inc. enterprise: "Three-quarters of my ... kids never logged in, never completed any work. Never answered their emails or phone calls, yet they remained on my class rosters. ... No one is monitoring this as far as I can see."

These are not isolated incidents. According to a report from the Center for Media and Democracy, K12 is being sued by shareholders who are disenchanted with the gap between what that company has promised and what it has delivered. Now there's something you'd want hanging on your child's wall of fame, right?... a diploma from a joint like that.

Incidentally, thanks to Tom Luna, K12 is the provider to the Idaho Virtual Academy, this state's largest online charter school.

Idaho isn't the only state where charter schools are falling below expectations. But first, let's re-examine what makes a charter school a charter school. Generally, they are portrayed as grassroots-generated antidotes to a failed public education system, formed by loving parents so insistent that their children receive better educations that they band together like outraged villagers marching to Frankenstein's castle, clutching higher academic standards instead of pitchforks.

Yeah, that happens. But increasingly, the chartering is done by one of the 97 companies in America that are in the business of making a profit off these schools. (Michigan leads the country with 79 percent of its charter schools being run for-profit.)

Being a charter means that a school can pick and choose which students get in, and if your child is a dumb, misbehaving delinquent whom the best teacher in all of history couldn't do anything with, don't hold your breath until a charter school takes him in and turns him into the state debate champ.

Perhaps another way of looking at charters is to understand they are a means by which some parents can send their kids to a private school, only it's being paid for by public funds. Yet in spite of being able to leave special-needs kids and low performers out of the mix--and in spite of sucking public education monies out of the public system, making it harder and harder for those schools to meet expectations--charters have been exposed for producing no better results, and in many cases worse results, than their public counterparts. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University issued a study four years ago that demonstrated only 17 percent of charters were outperforming comparable public schools--"comparable" in terms of the socio-economic status of the students--while 37 percent were doing worse.

The Albertson Foundation has been one the most enthusiastic supporters of charter schools in Idaho since our laws were changed in 1998 to allow charters. Since 1997, they have awarded $500 million in grants to Idaho public schools and charters. At present, for-profit charters haven't been OK'd in Idaho. Still, when you give a bunch of tax money to a charter or public school, which then pays for online material from profit-driven companies, we have to question how meaningful it is to claim there are no for-profit charters in Idaho.

Plus, we sense that with a little more softening up of our state leaders, it is just a matter of time before for-profit outfits come flooding into Idaho like locusts. I repeat, there are currently 97 companies in America whose motivation it is to turn a profit off of students.

Incidentally, last we heard, the investment wing of the Albertson family (Alscott, Inc.) owned 355,000 shares of K12 stock.

Oh... and about that $600 billion--billion--I mentioned at the beginning of this piece? According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, that is the combined total of what the United States spent in 2011 to educate its public school children. Can you even imagine an investor who wouldn't go to any lengths to get access to an ocean of cash like that? And before we let vested interests scare us into handing such an enormous and endless reservoir of public funds over to them, we need to examine the state of America's public schools with a mind open to the possibility that maybe they're not as bad off as we're continually being told they are. That is what I intend to do next week.