These Charter Schools Tried to Turn Public Education Into Big Business. They Failed.
It takes time, and nearly infinite patience, to build academically strong networks of schools from scratch. Investors aren’t used to waiting, though.
More and more these days, Americans think about schools using the language of business. Superintendents are “CEOs.” Districts manage “portfolios” of schools. And pundits talk obsessively about American schools’ “competitiveness.”
But we don’t always like them to act like businesses, particularly when it comes to having an overt profit motive. Partly as a result, for-profit public charter schools—at least the brick-and-mortar variety—are slowly dying in some states. Once touted as a model that would reduce inefficiencies in public education and achieve economies of scales by operating schools in multiple states, for-profit charters have fallen out of fashion. Charter schools in general are becoming more popular across the country, but since the early 2000s, for-profit charter operators have lost ground to their nonprofit peers. And their failure, in large part, has been the result of bad business plans—something the companies themselves freely admit.
Edison Schools—once the biggest name in the for-profit charter industry—partnered with 130 schools (some noncharter) in the early 2000s and fully managed 80. It now manages only five. In 2000, Advantage Schools, another for-profit chain, enrolled more than 10,000 children across the country. Today it enrolls zero. New Orleans hired several for-profit companies to manage some new charter schools after Hurricane Katrina. But by 2013 all of them had disappeared, their schools taken over by nonprofit operators. In recent years, lawmakers in Mississippi, Ohio, andTennessee have all taken steps to curb the growth of for-profit charters or ban them outright.
Nationally, in 2007 for-profit management companies ran almost half of charter schools that are part of chains or larger networks of schools. By 2010, the most recent year the figures were compiled, the number had dropped to 37 percent, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Gary Miron, a professor of educational leadership at Western Michigan University, says for-profit brick-and-mortar charter schools are by no means gone yet—and their online counterparts, which run degree-awarding charter schools on the Web, in particular, continue to flourish. But large for-profit operators with aspirations of operating scores of brick-and-mortar charter schools nationally have becomeFor-profit charter schools are failing and fading. Here’s why.: