In a bottom-line world, let's examine the bottom line

Virtual charter schools in the spotlight
By Scott Mooneyham | Feb 03, 2014


RALEIGH — A top executive from a for-profit online education company has been making the rounds lately trying to sell the idea of a virtual charter school to state policymakers.

Mary Gifford, who is senior vice president for education policy at K12 Inc., spoke to a study group made up of state education officials last week. Gifford was scheduled to speak to state legislators this week.

Gifford's expertise regarding the company that she works for is probably unquestionable, but those legislators and education officials are probably quizzing the wrong person.

Instead of hearing from the company's academic expert, they should be talking to the firm's chief accountant.

After all, if a for-profit company is looking for a slice of taxpayer money and some of that money will ultimately go to investors in the company, shouldn't the guardians of the taxpayer dollar have a clear understanding of the financial pressures facing the firm?

Shouldn’t they, for example, know about the company's current profit margin, and how the company has responded historically when that margin rises or falls? Shouldn't they know, when the number has fallen, whether the company has cut expenses, and what kind of expenses might have been cut? If they have responded by trying to increase revenue, shouldn't they know that too?

If educating kids is now a simple financial proposition, and taxpayers are the paying customers, then let's allow the customers to have a good look under the company's financial hood and kick the tires a bit.

And let's examine the warranties provided by the company and whether they have made good on them in the past.

Maybe we can also look for a copy of Consumer Reports, and find out how the magazine ranks the widgets coming off the K12 assembly line.

Of course, education is not a simple financial proposition.

The state has a duty to provide for an education to school-age children. The state constitution mandates that the elected officials of North Carolina "guard and maintain that right.

Allowing profit motives to enter into the equation is a clear dereliction of that constitutional duty.

For years, state legislators, policy wonks and educators in North Carolina have been battling over school choice and what kind of balance regarding choice is best for all children.

With its embrace of private school vouchers and the elimination of a cap on charter schools, the Republican-controlled legislature has sided with more choice. Even as critics question whether those decisions might erode resources for public schools, the moves are still part of a legitimate debate about where the balance should be struck.

The idea that for-profit schools are a part of that same legitimate debate is delusional when considering that children may suffer so that investors might profit.

The mere entertainment of the idea is a mark against those doing the entertaining.