Here is an extraordinary example of unintended and possibly inconceivable consequences, or maybe not. Whitney Tilson, capital investor and contributing founder of Teach for America, provides a window into what can happen when public education is hijacked by private companies.
Whitney Tilson is not a fan of the online-education company K12. His short position in K12 [Inc.] is the largest in his book, he told the audience at the second day of the Value Investing Congress in New York.
Who in education could have thought that the future of instructional and curricular decisions and practices would be intimately tied to the instability of Wall Street? Perhaps the only ones to potentially see it are the fund managers, traders, and corporate executives eager to get in on the “educational marketplace.”
Key to this entire story is Tilson’s “short position.” Of course, shorting stocks is neither easily understood, nor for the faint of heart. It is difficult for a lot of people to wrap there heads around making money on a swooning stock, but here is the simplest explanation as I could find.
Essentially, an investor has sized up a company that they think ripe for a fall, and they are betting against that company, looking to make a windfall in the process. As in all market-driven scenarios, there is a clear winner and loser. In this case, the winner is the investor(s) and the loser a company whose products and services are supposed to be educating children.
Let me be clear, I am suspicious of K12 Incorporated. While I have been teaching online for years and think there are genuine merits to online learning, K12 does not have the best track record or reputation. Additionally, I would submit that online learning is not for everyone, a fact that Tilson even recognizes. However, I am extremely skeptical of any for-profit company so close to the ground in a school that it is in a position to dictate curricular or instructional decisions and practices. As a purveyor of online learning and virtual schooling, K12 completely subsumes what most people think of as being school, becoming one for the individual students it enrolls in full-time online course.
Yet, there is something profoundly unsettling about the ramifications of K12’s for-profit publicly traded status in this circumstance involving Whitney Tilson. How is this story not only unseemly but unethical? Just because it can be done does not necessarily mean it should be. On the grander level, Tilson, or anyone for that matter, is gambling on the prospects of children losing – and losing on an education. While the number of children K12 enrolls is a small percentage of the student population, this is really how the situation shakes out!
K12 is not simply a text book company or testing company. They are not even a juggernaut like Pearson. They actually administer classes for students. What’s more, there is nothing preventing this kind of scenario playing out over and over again, with even greater frequency as more public school systems are carved open for private, for-profit enterprise opportunities.
Online education is often falsely pitched as an equalizer. It isn’t, for a whole host of reasons, but it does have a place in the educational landscape. That is now beyond question. Yet, an online education from a corporation, like K12, whose stock price can easily be shorted for profiteer gain, at the mercy of significant market losses in the process, no doubt impacts its ability to deliver quality products and services to its customers (otherwise known as students — children).
Even stringing together words that equate children as customers, and an education as products and services, makes me a little nauseous, because it frames the whole experience of human development and learning through a perverse, ill-fitting lens of market lingo.
Ultimately, we are witnessing the creation of a world where the public education of our nation’s children is literally being bought and sold with the only aim being the extraction of as much profit as possible. Upon a closer look, it really is that simple — and as far as I can tell, that evil.