Charter Schools Push Reading, Writing, Arithmetic -- and Profits

Article excerpt

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) -- J.C. Huizenga's company uses billboards, direct mail and videos to attract business. It offers its employees stock options, and hopes to eventually go public.

But Huizenga doesn't run a dot-com or a biotech startup. His business is education and his customers are the children at his National Heritage Academies charter schools.

National Heritage is part of a trend across the country that has become especially visible in Michigan: "education management organizations" that run charter schools to educate students and make a profit.

Huizenga, who has invested tens of millions of dollars of his money in charter schools, says traditional public schools have incentives to spend but little motivation to produce results.

"It's the free-market system that's provided us with all of our advances in technology, incredible breakthroughs in medical technology," he says.

His detractors worry that the three Rs -- not to mention innovation and accountability -- could be sacrificed if the nation's estimated 1,800 charter schools look instead to make a buck.

"There is the inherent tension between the company's bottom line, which is profits, and education's bottom line, which is students' work," says Heidi Steffens, an analyst with the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union in the country.

Charter schools are funded by the state but run by others as alternatives to traditional public education. They usually receive funding from the state according to a ratio of the number of students attending.

Since 1991, 36 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have signed charter school legislation into law and more than 350,000 students nationwide are currently enrolled in such schools, according to The Center for Education Reform.

About 70 percent of the 170 charter schools in Michigan have some type of for-profit management, compared with about one-tenth of charter schools nationally.

Charter school backers favor Michigan because it gives a higher per-pupil reimbursement than many states and doesn't require the schools to participate in the state pension plan, a big cost savings.

Supporters say for-profit companies have a long history of operating school buses, custodial services and lunchrooms and adding educational services is no different.

Opponents contend that charter school students perform only marginally better on standardized tests than children in traditional public schools. Charter school advocates say the research shows the opposite.

There are also concerns about accountability -- including who hires and fires teachers and the composition of charter school boards -- as well as the financial arrangements between charter schools and their backers. …