RICHMOND, Va.—Disruptive students are a headache for public schools. They distract from lessons, skip class, and often bring down the graduation rates. That’s why school districts across the country have resorted to opening alternative schools in recent decades, with hopes that smaller classes and individual attention might help these students get their diplomas. But even these alternative schools (which differ from charter schools in that they are still part of school districts and thus answer to superintendents) can be a burden: They’re expensive to run, and their graduation rates are still pretty low.
Desperate for help, many school districts are now hiring private companies to manage these alternative schools and educate their most troublesome students. Large, urban districts like Chicago and Philadelphia have been working with this emerging industry for several years now. Though research shows that problematic students in Philadelphia did better in alternative schools than traditional ones, there is a wide variance in school quality, and detailed information about their curricula is scarce.
The question on the table is whether a business whose job it is to make money can better educate vulnerable students than a public system with no profit motive. It’s not too different from the dynamic between the federal government and the private companies running its prisons across the country. But the Justice Department announced last week that it would stop contracting with the private sector, in part because it doesn’t seem to save that much money, and in part because the service didn’t improve either.