If you don't already, you should know who Tom Vander Ark is. Vander Ark has one of the oldest membership cards for the Ed Reform Club. He ran education initiatives for the Gates Foundation, then went on to work with investment capitalists, technocrats, and big-name competency based education groups like iNACOL.
As reader Les Perelman noted the last time I wrote about TVA, there's a chapter in his story that tells us a lot about Vander Ark and a lot about the charter business as well.
One of Vander Ark's moves after finishing his stint at the Gates Foundation was to set his sights on a slice of the charter business. (For the following account, I am leaning heavily on Anna Phillips' coverage in the New York Times as well as Mercedes Schneider's excellently detailed account of TVA's many adventures-- you should read both)
In 2008, Vander Ark set out to follow what has become the modern charter classic business model-- start a few non-profit charter schools, and start a for-profit charter consulting company. It's a sort of chicken-and-egg puzzle-- do you start the charter management business so that you have a way to make money from your school, or do you start the school so that you'll have somebody to hire the charter consulting company?
Vander Ark had a literal three-ring circus going. In ring one, the actual schools including Brooklyn City Prep and two other NJ charters. In ring two, the charter management organization, City Prep Academies. In ring three, the consulting firm eventually named Open Education Solutions.
But by 2011, the circus was in trouble. Well, that's not accurate. The circus had always been in trouble. It's just that nobody knew it except Tom Vander Ark.
City Prep Academies turned out to be nothing but a paper company, a piece of corporate vaporware. Worse, they did not have any money with which to start the charter schools they had committed to launching. From the NYT:
In a phone call on April 21 that Mr. Wiley [the school's board chairman] characterized as “explosive,” Mr. Vander Ark and Ms. Littmann acknowledged that City Prep Academies Northeast had no money to pay for Brooklyn City Prep’s opening costs and would not sign a management agreement.
Mr. Vander Ark had been unable to get any money from the Charter School Growth Fund or other similar national organizations. He had basically abandoned the idea of beginning a charter management organization and left the three schools-in-progress to find outside help on their own.
Vander Ark walked away. People had been hired, families were expecting a school in September, school boards were in place and doing all the work to make their school successful, and Vander Ark simply said, "No, there's no money. I'm outies. Good luck, y'all." He claimed bad economy and bad business climate, but other folks had a different theory. From the NYT:
“He’s flying 30,000 feet on the air, but can’t do it on the ground,” said Joshua Morales, a former official with the New York City Education Department who was hired by Mr. Vander Ark to develop the schools.
Then whole incident might suggest that Vander Ark is kind of a tool, but it also reminds us of a few features of the modern charter school business.
Mr. Tillotson, the consultant, said: “It signals what’s wrong with the so-called charter school community. Somebody who doesn’t deserve a charter gets a charter. Somebody who doesn’t deserve a building gets a building. And then somebody who doesn’t care about the communities can turn their head and walk away.”
This is one of the fundamental problems with trying to run public education as a business-- businesses only stay open as long as it makes business sense to do so. That is not the way to run public education. Bad economy, ugly business climate, financial troubles, rain, sleet, deep snow through which we must walk uphill both ways-- despite any and all of those, a public school still has to stay on the job. There is no benefit to the community or country to have a public school system that says, "Yeah, the whole finance thing seemed tight and it was hard work and all, so we just decided to close the place down, quit, and go do something else."
Businesses do not primarily commit to customers. Businesses do not promise to stay in business even if it makes no business sense to do so. Businesses sometimes try to show a commitment to a community-- but with the rare exception of very moral leaders, mostly they do it because it's good business to act community-oriented. But we expect public schools to be there no matter what. We expect public schools to be committed to the community, to reflect a commitment by the community to its own children.
This story is not unique-- charters close all the time. That's a natural feature of treating education like a business. Tom Vander Ark may be a giant tool, but he has always been mostly a businessman, and he makes decisions based on his commitment to his business interests. That's what modern charter operators do.