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Five Questions: Western Michigan University Professor Gary Miron on EMOs

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Interview conducted and edited by Emily Richmond, EWA public editor

Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University, is the lead author of a new National Education Policy Center report examining Education Management Organizations (EMOs) that are operating public schools. Miron spoke with EWA about the report, which you can read in full here.

1. The report looks at the percentage of EMO-operated charter schools (both virtual and bricks and mortar) that made adequate yearly progress, as compared to the percentage of traditional public schools. Is that an equitable comparison?

We know that AYP is a crude indicator, given the wide variation from state to state in what is considered acceptable academic achievement. At the same time, AYP represents one of the few ways we have to compare performance among states. In that respect, it’s useful. Of the campuses operated by for-profit EMOs, just 27.4 percent of virtual charter schools made AYP, compared with 51.4 percent of the companies’

bricks-and-mortar charter schools. That’s a significant gap that needs to be studied further. Nearly all of the virtual schools in EMO-operated schools are charter schools, although this report also includes district schools that are fully operated by private EMOs.

2. What about the argument that charter schools tend to serve more disadvantaged students and therefore can’t fairly be compared to “average” schools?

I’m aware that argument exists, but I’m not sure I agree with the premise. I’ve evaluated charter schools in many states, and typically I find the charter schools actually have less disadvantaged students than the local district population and fewer children with special

needs. There are certainly examples of charter schools that are dedicated to serving the neediest students. On the whole I’d contend that’s not the case.

Take, for example, National Heritage Academies – I’ve looked at the data for their campuses in several states. They largely serve children from middle-class populations, and enroll few students with special needs. When we consider the growing number of virtual schools that are operated by private EMOs, it’s important to note that these

schools largely serve students who were previously home-schooled. They tend to be children of parents who have the time to stay at home. They’re not the typical disadvantaged family.

3. You’re perceived as skeptical about choice and market-oriented school reform. As a result, this report might not be given as much weight by some individuals and organizations. How do you respond to that?

I’m a believer in school choice. I believe we have problems in the ways that it’s legislated. We don’t have enough safeguards in place to make sure the choice reforms and the involvement of private partners really serve the public interest. But I believe in school choice. That said, when you look at this report you’ll find it’s largely devoid of

interpretation. We prepare this each year as an overview and statistical digest of private EMOs that are operating public district and charter schools. No one out there is tracking or profiling these companies. In gathering the data, we learned that some state boards of education didn’t even know they had these for-profit companies operating in their schools. There was obviously a need for someone to collect and share this information. A group of people who tend to use this report the most are investment researchers. We’re actually trying to get those folks to help sponsor this research since we have limited funding.

4. What advice do you have for reporters looking to make use of the report?

There is a section of the report devoted to state profiles (pages 18-20) that will tell a reporter which states have large numbers of companies operating in their state. Then you can look up the individual reports for each company and get information about their schools—including general performance data—and the students they serve. If a company isn’t yet operating in your state but has announced plans to expand, the report would be a good way to check its rack record elsewhere.

It’s important to note the overall trends in the nation. We found that 35 percent of all charter schools in the country are now run by private companies. When we look at the number of students in charter schools nationally, 42 percent are in campuses that are privately operated. Those are high numbers that have been consistently growing, and it was surprising, even to me.

5. Does anything else surprise you in relation to the report’s data?

I continue to see stories about cuts to education funding across the country. It seems amazing to me that these private companies’ share of the market continues to grow, even as we’re being told there are fewer dollars for public schools. I would consider that a worthwhile story for reporters to consider exploring.