Education Secretary Rod Paige visited
several charter schools operated by White Hat Management in Ohio yesterday. He praised the innovative spirit of charters-- and rightfully so. I think charters hold a lot of promise.
But when I dug a little deeper, I wasn't quite as hopeful. White Hat Management runs a majority of Ohio's 225 charter schools and raked in $344 million in state revenue for their troubles. The company is run by an industrialist, David Brennan
, who is one of the top contributors
to Republican candidates -- nationally and in Ohio. (He personally contributed $155,000 in 1998 alone.)
Shouldn't there be some sort of law preventing people who receive government contracts from giving money to the very government officials who provide their livelihood? Is it just me, or is that shady?
But the shadiness doesn't end there. Charter schools in Ohio -- and elsewhere -- have generally performed abysmally; 71% of charter schools there were placed in "academic emergency" compared to 10% of public schools. And the state nearly put a moratorium on charters
this year because they weren't even reporting basic information to the state Department of Education.
Secretary Paige clearly thought they should be rewarded with a visit full of gushing praise.
Now, I'm not often accused of being fair, but decency requires me to point out the nuances of this situation.
First, I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't point out that the 71% number means very little to me. Why? Because it's based on one test. Yes, I'm opposed, as nearly any thinking individual must be, to basing one's entire judgment of a thing as complex as a school on one test given on one day of the year. I'm opposed to it in all cases -- even if that opposition means that a company I don't like benefits from it. Principles aren't always convenient.
Further, many charter schools -- including many of those run by White Hat Management -- take students that have dropped out of public schools. Their task is difficult to say the least. Many public schools oh-so-subtly push kids out so that they don't drag down their test scores in this era of insanely high stakes tests. Charter schools often step in to fill the void for these teens who would otherwise have little hope of a high school degree. That their test scores aren't impressive shouldn't be a shock or even a cause for any real concern.
Still, most for-profit education companies are operating in the shadows. They come out into the light -- briefly -- when someone like Secretary Paige comes to town, but other than that, they avoid the scrutiny of the public whenever possible.
It's quite possible that these for-profit companies will have ever expanding roles in the education system; we need to understand them better in their day-to-day operations, and not just when a high ranking official shows up for photos.