I started reading more about for-profit K-12 schools last spring because I was talking with people about teachers and unions during the Issue Two campaign.
In the course of those conversations, I found that people here were very surprised to learn that nearly half of “public” charter schools in Ohio are run by for-profit entities. They weren’t happy about it either, which isn’t surprising, because privatization isn’t what they were sold when they were sold public education reform. When a politician or expert tells people “we’re reforming your public schools!” people just naturally assume those politicians and experts actually mean “reforming public schools” not “creating publicly funded for-profit schools”. Those are two different things to an ordinary non-expert person.
I’ve been following the progress of one lawsuit against a for-profit in Ohio (here for the prior posts). The company in question has a lousy record on educating kids, but that isn’t really my focus. When tracking the burgeoning for-profit education sector I’m just following the money.
This company, White Hat, operates schools in five states. White Hat schools are called public schools but they should really be called for-profit schools, because for most people, “public” means “not for profit”. I don’t believe the use of the word “public” and the omission of the word “profit” in the education business is an accident. It’s marketing.
Publicly funded for-profit schools scare the hell out of me, because the stakes are very high. We could lose not-for-profit public education. We may still have publicly-funded education, but that’s not the same thing.
In this particular lawsuit, parents sued the for-profit manager of ten charter schools because they wanted some transparency and accountability on where the public money was going.
White Hat stonewalled on where the money went, then the case then took a dramatic turn outside of court, on the Ohio legislature side:
A Franklin County judge has given charter-school kingpin David L. Brennan and the schools suing his for-profit management company an additional 60 days to work on a new contract. But Gov. John Kasich and GOP leaders in the General Assembly might resolve the year-old lawsuit sooner. The Senate will decide next week whether to keep several charter-school provisions added to the budget by House Republicans at Brennan’s request. Many involve issues at the center of the lawsuit against his White Hat Management Co., including one that would allow the for-profit company to keep secret how it spends tax dollars it receives to operate charter schools. Another would give White Hat possession of school desks, supplies and other items purchased with tax dollars, should a school close.
Those measures were sidelined, but only because they got an enormous amount of negative attention. They would have turned over publicly-owned assets to for-profit education management companies, which was apparently too much reform and exciting innovation for even Ohio to rubberstamp. So, despite last-ditch efforts by Republicans to rescue White Hat, the lawsuit went forward. Then the public and the parents had an interim win, when the judge ordered the for-profit actor to turn over (some) records. So close, we were!
Well, sadly, we’ve now suffered a setback that may prove fatal:
A Franklin County judge who ordered a for-profit management company to turn over records showing how it spent millions in tax dollars to operate public charter schools is now questioning whether he should even be involved in the lawsuit. Common Pleas Judge John F. Bender has suspended “all further discovery” until he determines jurisdiction.
The development is a setback for the charter schools that filed suit nearly 18 months ago challenging the authority of White Hat Management Co. — the private firm of Akron businessman and major GOP donor David L. Brennan. Last month, Bender ruled that White Hat is a public official when acting as an authorized agent of a public charter school. The designation would make White Hat subject to Ohio public-record laws, requiring it to account for the public dollars it receives, information that for years the company has been unwilling to disclose.
If the parents can’t get relief in a court, and without jurisdiction they’re not getting anything, I guess they go to the legislature. The same legislature that introduced measures last spring that could have been written by for-profit education management companies, measures that were so outrageous a transfer of public assets to for-profit education entities that they didn’t survive the most cursory public evaluation. I wish them a lot of luck with that route. I think they’re going to need it.