Profits of doom

By Larry Sand
June 27, 2017

From California to Africa, teachers unions fight the “for-profit” bogeyman.

Well, I guess we can all rest just a bit easier now that California is on the verge of banning for-profit charter schools. Sponsored by the California Federation of Teachers, AB 406 is making its way through the California State Senate, having glided through the Assembly. In an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, CFT president Josh Pechthalt and the bill’s author Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) warn us that five for-profit education management organizations “cheat our students and reap huge profits at taxpayer expense.” (That comment could very easily apply to Mr. Pechthalt’s organization and its big sister, the California Teachers Association, but I digress….)

McCarty is particularly incensed at K12 Inc., the biggest for-profit charter operator in the state. We are supposed to gasp when told that about half of the 15,000 California students enrolled in the company’s schools are not proficient in reading and only a third are proficient in math. But where was McCarty’s concern for students and taxpayers when state tests administered in 2016 showed that just 49 percent of California students enrolled in traditional public schools are proficient in English and just 37 percent in math?

While there is some evidence, in aggregate, that for-profit charters don’t do as a good a job as non-profit charters, there is still no need for this law. If a school is engaged in illegal business practices, shut it down and arrest the guilty parties. If a school is not doing a good job of educating kids, the market will take care of that; no parent wants to send their kid to a failing school. In fact, California Parents for Public Virtual Education is hopping mad about AB 406. Addressing the fact that virtual charters in particular are being targeted, Mike MeCey, coalition manager of CPPVE writes, “It’s time that lawmakers trust parents and support public education options specifically addressing our students’ academic, personal and social needs.”

Taking a step back, we see an ongoing pattern here. Parents are battling with a teachers union and its friends in the legislature over who controls education in California. To date, of course, the unions are winning and parents are losing. In addition to dismal results on the California state exams, the 2015 NAEP test revealed that California’s 4th graders ranked 49th in the country in reading and 48th in math. So maybe a better idea would be to pass a law that any traditional public school that isn’t educating its kids should be shut down, but of course the unions would never let that happen. They would rather raise your taxes and send even more money to the schools that don’t work.

With the unions, it’s not about student learning. It’s not about any kind of student success. It is about privatization. That’s what motivates the unions to act. Very simply, privatization means a smaller role for government, which translates to less money for their unions.

In fact, the unions’ fear and loathing of for-profit education recently saw them go all the way to Africa in an attempt to make their case. Their targets are the Bridge International Academies, which, as Stanford’s Eric Hanushek wrote in the Wall Street Journal, are “a chain of successful private schools in the slums of Kenya and Uganda. A for-profit company, Bridge has shown that it’s possible to provide high-quality, low-cost primary education to poor children in the developing world.”

The “for-profit” part is what infuriates the unions. National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García fumes, “Bridge has been undermining the right to quality public education for all students in Uganda. Bridges for-profit educational model is robbing students of a good education and depriving them of their natural curiosity to imagine and learn. This is morally wrong, and professionally reprehensible.”

The American Federation of Teachers is also outraged.  Citing a study by Education International, a “global union federation representing 32 million educators in 170 countries,” AFT claims that the for-profit chain’s business plan “is based on standardizations, automated technology, shoddy school structures, and internet-enabled devices that are used to carry out all instructional and non-instructional activities on the cheap.”

But as Hanushek points out (and the unions conveniently don’t mention),“the World Bank determined that teachers in Kenya’s government schools were absent 47 percent of the time, teaching an average of only two hours, 19 minutes a day. A government audit showed that 80 percent of the primary-school teachers certified by Uganda last year could not themselves reliably perform at the primary-school level in reading and mathematics.” However, Bridge school teachers are provided with lesson plans and teaching scripts and work eight-hour days. Their attendance is monitored and absences are rare. Student-performance data are collected, analyzed and used to improve outcomes.

Hanushek continues, “In Kenya, progress has been notable. After two years in Bridge schools, 59 percent of students pass the national primary school exam. That’s 15 percentage points higher than the estimated public-school pass-rate. In 56 communities from 23 rural and urban counties, Bridge had a 100 percent pass rate among pupils who attended their schools for at least two years.”

The Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey points out that if you read the Education International report, “…you’ll get the sense that the most egregious is that BIA schools use a scripted curriculum delivered electronically, which is apparently excruciating torture for teachers and children. How they have any employees, and over 100,000 students, is a mystery.”

James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree, an inspiring account of the writer’s quest to discover “how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves” shows that BIA’s success is no fluke. Tooley’s travels took him to the teeming slums of Hyderabad, India, as well as other poverty-stricken areas, and found that children “in low-cost private schools in India, Nigeria and Ghana outperformed students in government schools by double-digit margins in almost every subject.” We’re talking about ramshackle schools with mud floors, adjacent to open sewers, where parents pay $1-$2 a month in tuition because they are so disillusioned with the (frequently unionized) government schools.

The teachers unions aren’t as powerful in Africa and other parts of the third world as they are in the U.S., which is very fortunate for parents who desperately seek a better life for their kids.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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