Cracking down on for-profit education

There has been a concerted attack on public education for some time now. Business interests have recognized that the total public education budget is huge and, especially in the K-12 sector, is under the control of local school boards. They have seen the opportunity for making huge amounts of profits if they could only siphon that money away into for-profit entities.

They have sought to do this by various techniques. One is to undermine confidence in the public school system by issuing ‘report cards’ and the like that seem to show that the schools are failing and failing badly, thus spurring demand by anxious parents for alternatives like charter schools that can be run by for-profit agencies. This move has been aided by politicians, especially Republicans, who have provided legislation for these profitable entities to move in more easily and lax oversight to hide their many shortcomings. Many Republicans hate the public school system because it can be a great equalizer and promotes ideals of working together for the common good, as opposed to the selfishness of the capitalist system.

The same thing is happening in higher education. State governments have steadily decreased funding for public universities, forcing them to charge higher tuition that reduces access to poorer people. This in turn has spawned for-profit institutions that promise degrees and certifications for lower tuition, often in the form of online courses taught by people who lack the proper credentials, that leave students with debt and poor employment prospects. The burgeoning scandal over Trump University is just a symptom of this rot. (Kevin Kisner looks in more depth at the for-profit college system.)

So I was glad to se that the Department of Education is taking steps to shut down Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, an the accreditor of the for-profit college system, for doing a lousy job.

“ACICS has had extensive and pervasive deficiencies in a wide range of accreditation standards over the previous five years,” an Education Department official requesting not to be named said earlier today in a call with reporters.

“These were not narrow misses,” said the department official. “These were quite severe, quite egregious, irreparable mistakes that they had been making over a long period of time.”

ACICS has faced heightened scrutiny over the past few months for the strikingly poor outcomes of the colleges it accredits.

The issue is not that all public schools are good. Some of them are shockingly badly run. But continually cutting their funding and giving money to education profiteers is not the solution. Also, not all K-12 charter schools are bad and a few actually provide some good, innovative education. But there are a lot of bad charter schools that should have been shut down a long time ago. The problem is that politicians are quick to criticize any shortcomings of the public schools while turning a blind eye to the massive failures of the for-profit sector.

The state Superintendent of Education in Ohio was forced to resign because of a scandal involving covering up the failures of charter schools, a classic example of the cronyism that is rampant.

Ohio school Superintendent Richard A. Ross is retiring. Again.

Ross, 65, told The Dispatch he will step down on Dec. 31 after nearly two years of overseeing Ohio’s public-schools system.

“This was planned to happen earlier, but we had something come up this summer,” he said. “I just couldn’t do it during that. We had to get that settled.”

Ross was referring to the firestorm touched off by revelations that school-choice chief David Hansen rigged evaluations of charter-school sponsors to boost their ratings. Hansen, the husband of Gov. John Kasich’s presidential-campaign manager, Beth Hansen, promptly resigned. A few Democratic lawmakers said Ross also should step down, and some on the 19-member state Board of Education demanded an independent investigation.

Colleges have to share the blame for their plight too. There has been a real expansion in the number of highly paid university administrators as a result of an increasingly corporate mentality in the governing boards of colleges and this has not only increased costs but also led to a shift in focus away from the educational mission.

Whatever their faults, a free (or very low cost) system of good K-16 public education is an essential element of democracy and egalitarianism. That is why the reactionaries want to destroy it and why we must support it.


  1. Crimson Clupeidae says

    (state) Colleges and Universities are one of the few entities that the government could really exercise some cost control measures on. I wish there were some members of state boards (or congress) brave enough to do so. Implement a simple cost control by making the salary requirements more uniform, require a minimum range of tenure track positions to maintain certification, and cap administration expense or salaries.

  2. flex says

    Many Republicans hate the public school system because it can be a great equalizer and promotes ideals of working together for the common good, as opposed to the selfishness of the capitalist system.

    I’m not certain I’ve seen any evidence for this claim. I’ve seen a few different arguments, but this one seems too cerebral for most of the people who I know complain about public schools.

    The arguments I generally hear are all about the cost.

    The first complaint is that X number of dollars spent per child going to public school. Where the value for X is some number calculated to create shock. When pressed as to where the money is spent, invariably it is claimed to be spent on teacher salaries because unions. When I bring up the fact that teachers are not nearly as well paid as the administrators, they don’t listen. Or that busing students is very expensive, and that cost is included in the cost per student numbers. Or that school building require constant maintenance, etc. Nope, it’s the lazy teachers and their lazy union which is the problem, and no amount of facts will convince them otherwise.

    Sometimes I try to stump them by asking if they have an idea what would be a reasonable expected cost per student for public schools. But it’s clear they have never thought about it.

    Then there are those people who send their children to private schools, and are upset because they are paying for their children’s education directly, so they should be exempt from paying their property taxes for public schools. I’ve pointed out to them that as a property owner without children, I’m paying for other people’s children to go to public school. As are all the property owners with children which have grown up, or those without children. If only the people who had children paid for public education there would be no public schools (and a lot of uneducated children running around). The response I get has always been something of the order of, “Well, you’re only paying once, I’m paying twice!” To which I usually reply, that’s your choice.

    Finally, there are the people who look at their tax bills and see that most of the money they pay in property taxes goes to public education. This shouldn’t be too surprising to them, education is expensive and is largely paid for by local property taxes. And since it’s a property tax, and they just purchased at $200,000 home, they see a property tax bill of, say, 37 mills for schools (that’s about what I pay in total public education taxes) and see that they are paying $3,700 a year in school taxes. Since the rest of my property taxes amount to 21 mills (which includes police, fire, township and county government services, and the library), it looks like the vast majority of my taxes go to public schools.

    But it’s not people like me who are complaining, it’s the people who purchased or built a $2,000,000 home and pay almost $40,000/year for public education which they are probably not even using. When their public school tax bill is higher than a lot of people’s incomes, they start feeling that they are being singled out for persecution and cry that it’s unfair to them to pay so much money for a service they will never use.

    They do not see the benefit to themselves of an educated workforce or electorate, so they are against funding public schools. But I don’t think they believe that education is not important, or even that ignorance is necessary to keep the masses complacent or that education teaches the value of working together. They value education for themselves and their family, and appear to think that education for all is a good thing. But they feel that they are being unfairly charged for public education.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    invariably it is claimed to be spent on teacher salaries because unions.

    I think you are to an important point: the degree to which “education reform” efforts are either intended, or are being used, as union-busting tools.

  4. says

    Imagine what the US could do to reform and improve its educational system if, instead of spending $1t on new nuclear weapons and pushing anti-missile systems into Russia’s back yard*, they spent it on schools. It’d be amazing.

    (* This is a little maneuver that threatens human civilization, undertaken quietly with no apparent oversight. A nuclear power that can degrade another nuclear power’s strike capability has an offensive advantage not just a defensive one.)

  5. says

    When there is as much fraud, waste, and abuse -- and overinflated salaries and profiteering -- in the school system as there is in the Pentagon, then I am prepared to worry about it.

  6. flex says

    Marcus, I’ve love to see the books on the various charter K-12 schools which have cropped up.

    As I understand it, they are paid by the state a certain amount of money per student. Which is less than the state gives public schools, but there are a lot of things the charter schools do not do.

    They do not provide bussing, the parents must drop the kids off at school and pick them up every day.
    They do not provide sports programs (at least the charter school near me doesn’t).
    They pay their teachers as little as possible and actively discourage unions.
    The building they erected was pre-fab and as cheap as possible.

    I really would like to see an auditing of their books, I suspect the owners of the charter school companies are raking in taxpayer dollars while providing an inferior education and less services than a public school.

    P.s. I read The Rule of Four the other day, and I enjoyed it more than The Club Dumas. I’ve just started 2666 and I think I’m really going to like that one.

  7. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    The Finnish school system is among the best in the world (as measured by some metric, e.g. PISA). It is interesting to note that all the schools are public.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    flex @ # 6: I really would like to see an auditing of their books…

    Please note that such audits might have to go beyond the factors usually considered, since many of the most dubious for-profit schools seem geared to acquire prime real estate at public expense rather than conducting direct financial hustles.

  9. John Smith says

    Clinton is certainly open to for-profit education -- she was for NCLB IIRC. Corey Booker is strongly for them.He’s on her VP list. She also has wall street mayor Eric Garcetti on it.

  10. says

    flex@#6 and others:

    Yeah, I came off wrong in my comment #4 and #5 -- the books for any privatization of public services ought to be open and auditable to the taxpayers. After all, the premise of privatization is that money will be saved and services improved. If that’s the case, it ought to be easy to demonstrate, right? (bitter laughter)
    The Pentagon, in fact, amounts to a privatized public service on the procurement side, with a small warfighting capability attached to the back of the logistical trail.

    I would bet my left nut that privatized public services tend to have more fraud, waste, and abuse than government managed ones. I’d even argue that privatization of public services is probably a fraud. So… yeah. Ugh.

  11. lorn says

    For-profit versus not-for-profit education is hard to analyze.

    On one side the question comes down to what happens if you imagine education to be a universal good and how one can get this universal good out to the society most effectively and efficiently.

    In theory for-profit brings the invisible hand of the market in as a powerful ally. But, then again, for the invisible hand to work, you need profit. Profit is the extraction of resources that could be used to provide a better product in greater quantity.

    A few thoughts:
    -- While in the abstract education is a universal good it isn’t a panacea. A well educated and informed electorate is necessary for a democracy but, beyond a certain level, continued education can cause problems. If the economy has no use for the more highly educated people you often see a profound dissatisfaction and disappointment take over.

    It has to be noted that Ben laden, and a good number of similar cases have a common theme in that the person spends a lot of time and effort to gain higher degrees but finds that there are no jobs available in which they can apply their skills and knowledge. I’ve friends with PhDs who are either unemployed or massively under-employed and to a man they are quite bitter. None of them are contemplating terrorism but all are disappointed. They did everything society told them to do but now their higher degrees are, as often as not, more burden than benefit. Two with PhDs in chemistry leave their PhDs off resumes and work as laboratory technicians alongside people who took a 12 week tech course at the local community college.

    -- The market is supposed to use competition to improve as good schools attract more money and better students while poor schools starve. The problem is that by the time your average student finds out they are getting an inferior education they are, at best, half way thorough the program. In some cases the shabbiness only becomes clear when they proudly announce their degree only to find out that they just spent thousands of dollars for a diploma that isn’t even suitable for use as toilet paper. Although, it must be pointed out that while gilding and raised lettering is rough, the thick high-rag-content paper makes a quite effective, and highly decorative, place mat.

    -- In theory a free education gets more people in. Unfortunately things given away for free tend to fail to inspire commitment. Commitment and dedication required to get the most from any education experience.

    -- Charging money and a more rigorous program is going to favor students form higher socio-economic backgrounds. people who can dedicate the money and time to full-time education. These are also people who already have a leg up and not the low-hanging fruit of the education game if you are intending to get the most education out to the people for whom it can do the most good. They are the low-hanging fruit if you want to make money. This is seen in high-end boutique schools operating as manifestations of the Lake Wobegone effect, and warehousing for future CEOs and federal prison inmates. These schools, and low-security federal prisons, are great places to work on one’s backhand.

  12. doublereed says


    It’s really, really not that hard to analyze. For-profit schools have been a terrible burden on our society, costing students and kids huge amounts of money for shit education, and they are some of the worst offenders of the student loan crisis. For-profit universities are nothing more than scams.

    Your last bullet point fails to distinguish between a private university and a for-profit school which are entirely different. You sound like someone who has not looked at this issue at all.
    Basic wiki:

  13. smrnda says

    With university administrators and their ridiculous salaries.

    As higher education is defunded, the ‘leadership’ at the top become fundraisers who use their rich person connections to (hopefully) bring in some donations and funding while they just skim some for themselves, so any complaint about high salaries is countered with ‘but, under their leadership we got THIS MANY DONATIONS!’

    The problem is holding public education hostage to donations anyway.

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