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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Education fails when schools profit

Our mania for measurement in the schools – for testing, for databases, for assessment – has produced more arguments than answers.

But we’ve gotten a very clear picture of one segment of our educational system: For-profit, online schools are generally doing a worse job of educating students than real schools. Kindergarten through college. And they’re making a ton of money. A lot of it is taxpayer money, thrown their way under the mantle of “reform” or “choice.”

There is no reason in the world to think it will do anything but continue to boom. Idaho is building online courses into its core requirements, and schools everywhere, at all levels, are turning to these companies more and more.

This week, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin released a damning report on for-profit higher education. The report paints these schools as dropout factories, which use aggressive tactics to enroll students, slurp up financial aid money, and leave students deeply in debt. Where does the money go? Profits and marketing costs at the Apollo Group ate up 50 percent of revenues.

“In this report, you will find overwhelming documentation of exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation,” Harkin said in news reports this week. “These practices are not the exception. They are the norm. They are systemic throughout the industry with very few individual exceptions.”

Harkin’s report comes not long after researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder examined the performance of K12 Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit provider of online education for elementary and secondary students. The report concludes that “weak performance outcomes were found across an array of school performance measures.”

Some lowlights:

• The authors found that 27.7 percent of K12 full-time online schools met the measure of Adequate Yearly Progress in 2010-’11. AYP is the standard that schools must meet on math and reading tests, established under the No Child Left Behind Act, the Big Bang of school testing.

K12’s numbers make the public schools’ performance – 52 percent – look good. K12 says AYP is a lousy yardstick and they’re right, but it’s the yardstick we’re using for everyone else.

• Of 48 full-time schools operated by K12, 36 received performance ratings from state educational agencies. The percentage making satisfactory progress: 19.4.

• The on-time graduation rate for K12 schools was 49 percent, more than 30 percentage points below real schools.

K12 notes that a lot of its students are already struggling academically by the time they turn to the online programs. It also argues that it does better on its own, paid-for, assessments. And it’s true that some K12 programs are meeting federal standards – online schools in both Idaho and Washington, for example, met AYP last year.

Some of the other assessments in the report:

• K12 took in an average of $7,393 in public funding per student in 2008-’09. That is very inexpensive, compared to the real schools’ average of $12,139. These savings come, naturally, partly from the fact that they need no actual schools – which we now are supposed to call “brick-and-mortar schools,” as though an actual school, with a building and people in it, is just one of the many kinds of valuable schools among which consumers may choose.

• K12 also pays teachers less, while requiring them to teach more students. How many more? The company itself says that the proper teacher-student ratio for “asynchronous” online learning – students go at their own pace, outside any specific group or place – is 100 to 1. One North Idaho teacher who used to work for K12 told the Idaho Legislature that she had as many as 300 students at a time. She said she could not even briefly review the number of assignments she was expected to grade in a day.

Despite such efficiency, K12 bears expenses that real schools don’t. Executive pay, for one thing – K12’s CEO was paid $5 million in 2011. It has to pay for marketing and promotion, lobbying and political donations – in the last eight years, K12 and its employees have donated more than $838,000 to friendly, free-market-loving politicians. A good number of these politicians are now professional public deniers of facts on for-profit schools.

And then there are profits, of course. The company has to constantly pass through profits to shareholders, and these profits – these monies that have been diverted from overpaid teachers and dusty old bricks and mortar – must never fall below Adequate Yearly Progress.

K12 brought in a profit of about $13 million in the last fiscal year. Total revenues were $685 million, an increase of 31 percent over the previous year. The company estimates the market could grow exponentially in the coming years – to between $5 billion to $50 billion.

To keep profits high, K12 has told shareholders it will cut costs next year by $20 million.

“K12 argues that these cuts can be made ‘without any adverse effects on student performance, employee retention, customer satisfaction, or our growth rate,’ ” the Colorado report says.

Twenty million in savings. No adverse effects on anything. This is what we really dream of, when we dream of “fixing” our schools. Something for nothing.

“An alternative explanation,” the report dryly concludes, “is that the company chooses not to address the weak performance of its schools to protect profits.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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