The Faux Nonprofit Prophets

Published December 27, 2019

Among the many vapid rallying cries in the 2019 presidential follies is the one that stresses the importance of eliminating for-profit charter schools. In October, Elizabeth Warren released her education plan that proposed eliminating them, and using the IRS to investigate existing schools that may “actually serve for-profit interests.” This position mirrors that of Bernie Sanders, who had endorsed a ban on for-profit charter schools in May.

All this falls right in line with the teachers unions’ enmity toward charter schools, except, of course, for the few that they have managed to organize. Fervently backed by the California Teachers Association, AB 406 in 2018 disallows a “for-profit corporation, a for-profit educational management organization, or a for-profit charter management organization” from opening a charter school in the Golden State. At the time of the bill’s passage, only 34 of the 1,200 charter schools in California were being operated by for-profit entities. In fact, such charters are quite rare across the country. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that just 12 percent of charters nationwide are run by for-profit organizations.

It is very unclear why any of this really matters. The main difference between a for-profit and nonprofit is tax status, which is irrelevant to the schools day-to-day operation. Even many charter-haters admit there is virtually no difference between nonprofit and for-profit charter schools.

The real reason behind Warren, Sanders, the unions and other members of the education establishment’s animosity toward charters is that they harbor a strong anti-capitalist bent, and believe that a one-size-fits-all operation run by a Big Government-Big Union duopoly is the best way to educate kids. Perhaps the California Teachers Association is most vocal in its hatred of the private sector. In 2016, it unleashed “Kids Not Profits,” which was dubbed an “awareness” campaign. It calls for more “accountability and transparency of California charter schools and exposing the coordinated agenda by a group of billionaires to divert money from California’s neighborhood public schools to privately-managed charter schools. These same billionaires are spending record amounts of money to influence local legislative and school board elections across the state.”

So li’l old CTA, the biggest political donor in the state, bringing in almost $200 million a year – all tax free – is whining about fictitious ogres who are trying to “become rich off the backs of our children.”

Fact is, charter schools operate in accordance with all state and federal laws, and must engage in ethical business practices. Generally charters outperform traditional public schools, but if one of these schools-of-choice doesn’t educate its students properly, it will lose customers and the school’s charter will be revoked. But if a traditional public school is failing, typically more taxpayer dollars are wastefully flung in its direction, and because of union-mandated tenure laws, virtually no teachers lose their jobs. Talk about zero accountability!

Taking all this one step further, it might actually be a good idea to encourage for-profit schooling. James Tooley’s 2013 The Beautiful Tree, an enchanting and inspiring account of the writer’s quest to discover “how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves,” provides a powerful lesson. Tooley’s travels took him to the teeming slums of Hyderabad, India, as well as other poverty-stricken areas and found that children “in low-cost private schools in India, Nigeria and Ghana outperformed students in government schools by double-digit margins in almost every subject.” We’re talking about ramshackle schools with mud floors and tin rooves that may be adjacent to open sewers, where parents pay $1-$2 a month in tuition because they are so disillusioned with the (frequently unionized) government schools.

Despite spending more than ever on education, our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores have barely budged in 20 years. No matter. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and the teachers unions will continue to peddle their anti-privatization hooey. But who knows, maybe one day we the people will learn a lesson from the poverty-stricken third world denizens in India and Nigeria, and turn our backs on the Big Government-Big Union duopoly. Maybe.

[Originally Published at the California Policy Center]