shamelessly stolen from Tuko Fujisaki @ Charter schools.

They are a bad business model for education.

Let’s pretend for a minute that I have no ideological, ethical, or professional investment in keeping education free from the marketplace paradigm. It’s an awfully big suspension of disbelief, true.

Let’s pretend that the nation is on the same page about getting our kids an education, and we are deeply honest about looking for solutions to a broken system. In true problem-solving mode, then, everything should go on the table for exploration. That includes evaluating charter schools openly from within its own framework.

The argument supporting charter schools depends on the analogy that education is a business. So, for the sake of argument, let’s just agree. We seldom take time to parse the meaning of analogy or look at charter schools from within the analogical framework. Such an analysis is necessary for understanding why charter schools are wrongheaded.

So, in charter schools, just who are the customers? What is the product or service? What, exactly, equates to what in this analogy? The variables of this equivalence – Education is a Business – slip and slide around like the pea in a shell game on a French Quarter sidewalk. Once pinned down, the basic analogy doesn’t hold up. The fallout, and who gets screwed, are the kids and their parents.

What’s good for business isn’t good for the business of education.

I have no business experience in keeping a company out of the red or how to earn a profit. Ultimately, though, it seems the explanation for why the business model is good for education comes down to some common sense principles about why businesses succeed, and these principles generally based on profit. Explain if these are wrong:

  • Businesses succeed because if customers aren’t happy, they go somewhere else.
  • Businesses succeed if they can stay competitive; competition forces them to be great at what they do.
  • Businesses succeed because everyone from top to bottom is held accountable. If you don’t do a good job, you get fired.

The analogy is fundamentally flawed because education is not a profit-making venture. The decisions that guide good business are grounded on making money, not making educated citizens. Business managers must reduce costs and increase profits by

  • firing not only non-productive workers, but even productive workers;
  • ceasing to manufacture not only failed products, but also excellent products;
  • making and selling poor quality products because they are cheaper than better quality products;
  • closing operations, even functional ones, to move to cheaper locations.

In short, how we define business success does not equal to creating a quality product, nor does it equal to long-term sustainability. Many businesses achieve phenomenal reputations because their leadership cuts quality, reduces quailty workforce, shuts down a viable plant or outlet, all to increase profit.

Here are some examples to illustrate:

Take the wildly successful Dollar General Store, stalwart against the test of time in every strip mall. At a Dollar General, the bargains aren’t that great (the brand soda is always a few pennies cheaper than grocery store sales); the brand item deals are actually nickeled and dimed higher because package volume is smaller (for chips, napkins, plastic spoons); their generic brands are nasty; and the lowest prices are on the junk items. Premier as a business, Dollar General should not be a model for education. [The staff are nicer than Walmart staff; this correlates to the lack of an Our Dollar General comparable to Our Walmart.] Good business often equals mediocre product.

Walmart is infamous for moving into a city, driving small companies out of business, and then closing up its store only to reopen two or three miles away in a different suburb. Who wants to drive their kid to the next town for school starting next month? Microsoft is notorious for releasing software with known significant bugs and with the intent to release entirely new programs in the very near future (Vista, anyone?). Who wants to adopt a buggy curriculum for now because a better one is coming out next year? In today’s Alice in Wonderland mentality, even failed ventures are considered a success because you can learn from your mistakes and try again, and your success rate next time around will likely increase from 10% to 30%. Who wants a principal who’s considered a success because she’s on her third startup school?

Here’s a very sad story to prove my point. Google bought Motorola solely to protect Android and its patents. Google shut down over one third of Motorola’s plants and fired 4,000 employees because it didn’t want to bother with running Motorola as a stand-alone company.  Motorola is arguably the inventor of the mobile phone, with a wealth of expertise, cache, and resources. Google has gutted an incredibly profitable, successful, and innovative company – as a successful business move.  These are the people you want designing your education system? I adore Google and I love my Droid, anti-capitalist that I am. Though I’ve had more brand loyalty to my Droid than sentimentality toward any of my schools, I’m not sad that Google’s reducing Motorola (though I do care about the workers who lost their jobs).  But, if we translated this into education terms, I would be highly upset if someone shut my child’s school down because it became inconvenient to run.

Buyer Beware: There’s no do-over for a bad product

So, given the analogy that education equals (or doesn’t equal) business, let’s start looking at some of the components. In schools, the product or service sold is the education, and that includes the full range of accoutrements such as the curricula, expert providers, and locale. A successful company has to provide a reliable product or it won’t attract customers. This presumption is the bedrock of the privatization argument.

What are the consequences of a failed business for the customer? To answer, let’s look at some examples of the market place in action.

Compare boutique education and hairdressing. My salon is upscale, my hairdresser is a stylist, and I adore her far more than I do my first grade teacher. She serves me delicious snacks, pipes in lovely music, and has a comfy chair for me to lounge in while my hair processes to its lovely shade du jour. When I can’t afford her, I go to the industrial strength, McDonald’s sized option: Supercuts. In either case, if it doesn’t work out, I look bad until my haircut grows out. So, this demonstrates the market of available options. Yay for options, and my hair will grow out.

Let’s compare products with higher stakes than a bad hair day: Banking. People can go to a boutique financial planner or to a nationally recognized bank. If someone at Capital One makes a big mistake, the bank will fix it, and customers will suffer no consequences. Additionally, if the bank really screws up, the customers get their money back under government insurance and regulations.

Here’s why charter schools are a problem. Our children cannot afford to wait until their collective hair grows out of a bad cut. No matter how much regulation and oversight a government provides, children cannot recoup a lost year of education.

So what about failed businesses and the consequences of failures? Failed companies can restructure through bankruptcy. The analogy doesn’t hold for the customer, though. In every business except for education, a customer can get a do-over. Setting aside safety flukes for things like exploding microwaves and badly manufactured cars that cause injuries or death, a company can fix a mistake for a bad product. If you buy a lemon of a car, you return it. If you buy a lemon of a computer, you return it. If you buy a lemon of an education, the student is dumb and you don’t get those years back. You just get dumb with compounded interest.  It’s not always in the best interest of the company to sell the best quality product, and companies often sell less than the best. Yet, for a child, nothing but the best education will do. That right there nullifies the analogy at ground zero.

Oh, wait, there’s another industry where you don’t get a mulligan: Health care, the other white meat.

Dollar General Charter High School and Strip Mall Charter Elementary

What, then, motivates a business to provide a good product? In the case of our analogy, people will patronize a business if the product meets their needs.  Responsible schools must respond to customers and create quality products. They must cater to customer demands! The ultimate consequence of poor performance is failure. If you fail consistently, your business will close.

Wrong. There are two problems with Dollar General Charter High School. Customer responsiveness does not necessarily create a good educational environment. First, parents and students should not decide on the nature of education. Students are not customers, they are learners, and education is not hair coloring. As a teacher who’s fended off grade-grubbing for twenty-something years, trust me when I say this sets bad standards for education. The customer is not always right. If the customer were always right, we’d all still believe the world is flat and that women who float in water are witches. Enough about selling and teaching to the lowest common denominator. We already have enough high-sugar products in schools as it is.

The second problem is the inherent instability and transience of the dog-eat-dog business world.

The privatization argument depends on a circular notion that parents will determine a school’s success by bringing their children and dollars to a successful school.  Unfortunately, this model has schools recruiting and marketing instead of teaching, and it makes students shoppers instead of learners. Consider the revolving-door occupancy of a strip mall and the sustainability of most businesses.  Ask yourself what happens to the pupils and the quality of their education when a potentially failing school must cannibalize another school’s population to survive. (BRAINS!) Ever see how people flock toward and flee from a trendy eatery or a new fitness gym at the drop of a hat? Look around you. How many businesses have been in town for longer than your local school district? At best, fifty percent of companies close within five years – which gives your kid a coin toss of a chance of making it through the elementary grades in the same school house.

Remember the most salient point of this flawed analogy: no do-over.

We started by trying to parse the components of the analogy. To put this puppy to rest, in a dog-eat-dog word of corporatized education, you get the product you pay for: revolving door education, Dollar General Charter Elementary, or Episcopal High School (have some link love) if you can afford it. We have spent some time demonstrating why education =/= business based on the problem that you cannot compare an education to a haircut. Education is not a product or service to be sold into a marketplace.  Treating it as such, and treating students and their parents as customers, is a problem.

Now, balanced budgets and sound financial planning are essential to running an educational institution, or any other nonprofit or government endeavor. I’m not advocating we ignore practical matters in pursuit of building a grand educational system, so don’t bother going there. My point is that the for-profit charter school “it’s a business” model is premised on a first principle that has nothing to do with educating people and should not be used to build an educational system. 

If you disagree with my analysis, then put your money where your mouth is. Send your children to the University of Phoenix (link love to assist you) instead of LSU. Phoenix has a better, more profitable business model.

The alternative way to parse the charter school analogy is even more frightening. The product sold is not the education, but the students themselves. Students are manufactured and packaged. They themselves are goods exchanged on a market. The latest charter movement is just pouring old wine into a new wineskin.  This is not a new observation.

In the end, if you want people with business acumen to come in and rearrange public education so that it’s financially efficient, have at it. When people say, “We’re throwing money at the schools and that’s not fixing it,” they are utterly missing the point. We all know the point of a shell game.  Privatizing doesn’t end corruption, mismanagement, or inefficiency. It doesn’t improve the return on tax dollars, the condition of human lives, or the strength of our communities. We only need look at Louisiana’s privatized prison system for an example. Privatizing simply ensures that decision-making rests in the hands of people who don’t have the expertise to run an educational system, but who do have particular designs on a political playing field. Folks fall for it because the only form of civic enactment they know today is purchase power. They have fallen for the rhetoric of “choice” masterminded by the Heritage Foundation. They have succumbed to the notion that they are customers of education, believing the business model gives them some measure of control over their destiny – the power to choose between schools the way they choose between restaurants or hair salons. It’s an easy, individualized resolution to a complex social, communal problem.

So, again, in this analogy what’s being sold?

I’m not very good at pretending I don’t have a political agenda.

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