McClellan: For-profit schools not good for taxpayers - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

McClellan: For-profit schools not good for taxpayers

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Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.

Posted: Friday, August 17, 2012 8:01 am | Updated: 5:33 pm, Tue Aug 21, 2012.

One of the Truths of the modern conservative movement is this: The private sector can do it better.

That is, if we minimize how much the government involves itself in our economic lives, the private sector will perform better. In fact, according to these conservatives, the private sector will always perform better than the public one.

One result of that is the privatization of prisons across the country, including here in Arizona.

The school choice movement is another part of that philosophy. So we see Arizona with one of the largest charter school systems in the nation. And its advocates would like nothing more than to privatize schools. One of those proponents, former state senator Tom Patterson, wrote a recent column arguing to end school districts, to make schools stand alone. And the next step using Patterson’s logic? Privatize schools.

The charter schools movement in Arizona has had mixed results, with a handful of outstanding schools and a large number of mediocre or worse ones. Equally significant, the competition these schools create has not led to improvement in student achievement for Arizona’s kids predicted by the movement’s supporters.

How to change that? Move towards privatization, advocates say.

Before we come close to that next step, we should look at the one educational piece already subject to privatization: for-profit private colleges.

They’ve sprung up everywhere, and are often Internet-based. They make a number of promises to their students, but the promise they seem to best keep is this one: make money for the company running the school. As to the students, well, they don’t seem to fare quite as well.

A recent Senate subcommittee headed by Iowa Senator Tom Harkins looked into the for-profit private colleges, and the picture created by that investigation is ugly.

Here are some of its findings, as reported in a recent Rolling Stone article:

More than half of the for-profit students drop out without a degree, and half of those stay in school for only four months.

Thirteen percent of all students receiving student loans attend these schools, yet they account for almost half of all loan defaults.

The schools get 86 percent of their funding from those loans, getting more than $30 billion a year from the government.

While the schools are recipients of $563 million of funding for veterans, the vast majority of those students drop out.

For every career placement officer, these schools have 10 recruiters, spending almost 24 percent on marketing but only 17 percent on instruction.

Compensation for the heads of these for-profit schools is seven times higher than what Ivy League presidents earn.

To sum up: These for-profit private colleges -- and their leaders -- make a nice living off the largesse of American taxpayers, with less than stellar results. Advocates of privatization clearly won’t point to these schools as models.

Yet here in Arizona, we have a mini version of these schools -- for-profit charter schools.

That’s right, in Arizona it’s perfectly legal to be a for-profit charter school. In fact, we have chains of those schools.

Has there been a published evaluation of how those schools spend our money? Not that I know of. And don’t expect the state Department of Education to take a hard look at how the for-profit charter elementary and high schools perform and spend taxpayer dollars; Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal has been one of the most vocal supporters of a wider system of school choice.

But while Mr. Huppenthal might not want to cast a critical eye towards Arizona’s for-profit schools, we the taxpayers can certainly encourage him to measure those schools’ behavior.

If, as Mr. Huppenthal and others similar to him like to claim, Republicans are good stewards of the taxpayers’ money, they should be among the first to call for better oversight of for-profit schools, both nationally and in Arizona. Their silence on the subject speaks loudly, however.

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