The relationship between school reform and business ventures can be like the worst boyfriend some of us girls had in high school. Business shows up looking all great with his profits and big ideas about running your school efficiently. He promises you high-flying achievement if you just ignore conventions, like contracts and regulations, and give him a chance. Oh yeah … you’re dazzled.
But then, reality sets in. You wonder why business doesn’t understand you. After all, you never lied to him about your special needs students and your lack of broadband access. Business begins to realize that the relationship is harder work than he thought it would be. He wonders when he will get the profits he wants. He blames you. Soon enough, business splits.
Of course, after some time he returns with the same promises with one new one — that he’s changed. This time, he says, it will be different. I’m not the same Edison, or Whittle, or k-12 Inc, you knew back then. And you, school reform, take him back.
The New York Times reports on a recent business venture to abandon school reform. City Prep Academies, a for-profit charter school network led by Tom Vander Ark, was to open three new charter schools, one in New York and two in New Jersey. According to the Times article:
… after spending more than $1.5 million of investors’ money on consultants and lawyers, Mr. Vander Ark, 52, has walked away from the project, and the schools will not open as planned this fall, leaving others involved stunned and frustrated.
The article presents a damaging picture of delays, money difficulties and ultimately, poor leadership. It also profiles individuals on the ground who were earnestly working to create a good charter school, but are now left hanging in the wind.
The Times’ account is worth the read, but briefly — a building for the Brooklyn academy was found, a board was named and principal hired. Yet the New York charter review board found the initial application to be “lacking in details.” In an unusual move, the board tentatively approved the application but required City Prep to take another year for planning. The two New Jersey charters were likewise delayed. Apparently, investments continued to lag, school openings were delayed yet another year, and the business model started to show its cracks.
Charter regulations aren’t the culprit here. One only needs to look elsewhere in New York to find highly successful charter schools, most notably the not-for-profit Harlem Children’s Zone. As we have shown in our report, while most charter schools are either no different or worse than their traditional public school counterparts, some are quite good and we can learn from them.
So the big lesson is not that charters per se are the problem, or that business has nothing to contribute to education improvement. It’s that public schools are not businesses. Schools can still learn and adapt good business practice when it makes sense. But we need to always keep in mind that they are public institutions that serve communities and children, not the bottom line.
Most of all, public schools — and school reform — need partners that will be there through the hard work of educating all children. School managament businesses talk a big talk, but when the profit’s not there, they can turn out to be a bad boyfriend.