• It’s not just for-profit schools hyping the ROI theme. This week my soon-to-be-college-bound teenager received a postcard from a big state university selling their commitment to Hire Education, note the pun.

    Back in 1993 I wrote a freelance story about a for-profit education company, Education Alternatives Inc. Private contractors running failing schools was kind of a new idea at that time. The thrust of the story, for a business-ethics publication, was to shine a light on what such companies were trying to accomplish and where they were failing (teacher-union lawsuits in Baltimore claimed special education abuses, for example, and EAI experienced devastating losses in 1994).

    In revisiting what happened, from the standpoint of almost 20 years later, I was struck by a few things.

    EAI and other for-profit endeavors were brought into rotting inner-city school districts partly to upgrade them – i.e., facilities management – and for “technology consulting,” thus they came in with an objective to create clean, positive learning environments and turn around especially needy schools.

    They had more money to spend per student in some schools than the district did. The hyped turnarounds didn’t happen, in terms of results.

    What I found interesting in returning to the subject was a post-mortem examination of the company’s work in Baltimore, written in 1996 by some scholars at Columbia University Teacher’s College. I found it on the internet, but it seems real. What I noticed and found interesting was a flowchart showing the hierarchy of the company’s corporate structure and alliances.

    At the top was an alliance between Viacom (the multimedia giant of MTV-Nickelodeon-Comedy Central which has joint ventures to India and BSkyB), plus Simon & Schuster and something called Computer Curriculum Inc. which I believe is now Pearson.

    EAI had originally EAI was originally part of a Control Data subsidiary.
    It was a subdivision of the Alliance for Schools That Work, partnering with KPMG Peat Marwick and Johnson Controls. Other partnerships existed with Control Data, Northwest Bank of Minnesota and Piper Jaffray.

    In any event, in hindsight it’s obvious that the failings that brought EAI down in the early 1990s were the same failings in microcosm that brought down our huge economy.

    For-profit education invested in derivatives. It put corporate execs and shareholders in charge of something vital, education, when what these schools needed was perhaps money, more organization and something like engineering and facilities consultation, not a hostile takeover.

    I can understand why the EAIs out there would have been frustrated with teacher’s unions. And yet. Not everything in life can be reduced to a spreadsheet. Or, rather, when you do that, much of value is lost.