The Hypocrisy of the For-Profit Attack

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Doug Tuthill is president of Step Up For Students, which helps administer the nation’s largest private school choice program (and co-hosts this blog).

The term “for-profit” has been weaponized in public education by teachers unions and their tribal allies.

They wield it against education improvement initiatives they oppose, especially education choice programs not covered by collective bargaining agreements. (Choice programs not operating under collective bargaining, such as Florida’s Voluntary PreK program, are not targets of for-profit attacks.)

For-profit corporations are forbidden to operate charter schools in Florida and California. Yet these schools are constantly being attacked for profiting off students. The overwhelming majority of Florida private schools serving tax credit scholarship and voucher students are non-profit, but newspaper editorial boards regularly criticize them for making profits.

These critics seem unfazed by the reality that district schools could not function without the products and services purchased from for-profit corporations. School buses, desks, instructional software, hardware, interactive whiteboards, books, pencils, pens, copy machines and paper are all purchased from for-profit companies. School buildings are constructed by for-profit companies using materials purchased from for-profit corporations. A proposed law requiring school districts to purchase products and services only from nonprofit organizations would be fiercely opposed by school districts, who would correctly see this as an attempt to destroy public schools.

Despite their for-profit criticisms, teachers unions rely on the profits they make from for-profit businesses to help pay their bills. During my tenure as a Florida teachers union leader, we sold insurance and financial services to teachers through various for-profit businesses. I still use a National Education Association credit card through a for-profit venture involving the NEA, MasterCard, and Bank of America.

The NEA’s for-profit businesses are not illegal. Nonprofits can own for-profit businesses provided the profits from those businesses are used for nonprofit purposes. My hometown paper, the Tampa Bay Times, is a for-profit company that is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit which provides professional development opportunities for journalists.

While teachers unions’ criticisms of for-profit businesses in public education may be disingenuous, ensuring taxpayers get the best possible value from education products and services purchased with public funds is important. But requiring that services teachers unions don’t like, such as charter schools, be purchased only from nonprofit organizations is not the best way to serve the public good. The best way is through effective contracting and oversight by government agencies.

When state government or a local school board purchases services, they should focus on maximizing the public’s benefits, not on the characteristics of the providers. As a taxpayer, I don’t care if a provider is gay or straight, male or female, black or white, for-profit or nonprofit. I want children to receive great services for a fair price. Focusing only on quality and price may not further the political agendas of certain advocacy groups, but it does serve taxpayers and the people receiving these services.

Determining what constitutes the best services for the best price is often challenging in public education. An afterschool tutoring program, a neighborhood district school, or a Montessori charter school may work well for some students, but not others.

The legendary management consultant, W. Edwards Deming, defined quality as customer satisfaction and not goodness, because what is good for one person may not be good for another. This is why parental empowerment and education choice are essential for helping determine what constitutes quality in public education. Empowering parents and educators to customize each child’s education is the best way to maximize the public’s return on its public education spending.

Given the proliferation and necessity of for-profit organizations in public education, attacking those that aren’t covered by teachers union collective bargaining agreements would seem a flawed political strategy. But it works with people and organizations who are part of the same political tribe as teachers unions, most notably many daily newspapers, Democratic politicians, and liberal advocacy groups.

As more low-income, minority, and working-class families participate in education choice programs, I hope teachers unions and their political allies will become more open to seeking common ground with these families.  Many of these families are struggling to break the cycle of generational poverty.  Hypocritical attacks on for-profit organizations providing services to school districts and state governments are not serving the greater good. We need to focus our collective energy on how to efficiently deliver educational excellence and equity to every child.