My girlfriend Brenda Baker recently told me about a for-profit primary education school called K12 (which received a somewhat informative write-up in Forbes a couple of years ago). Now, most people probably associate the idea of for-profit education with greed, inequality, and injustice, but I think that social justice considerations actually point in support of such schools.
The issues are mainly ones of choice and accountability. Pupils in a lot of public school districts suffer from a lack of choice. Now, charter schools do provide parents in a school district with more choice, but not-for-profit charter schools don't face the same amount or kind of accountability as do for-profit schools. For-profit schools have to provide a valuable service to their customers at a low enough cost that there is at least some profit left over for investors. A for-profit school which is doing a poor job will lose pupils, lose funding, and die. A not-for-profit school doesn't face quite the same incentives to keep quality up and costs down. This is the bright side of market self-correction--waste and poor value can only persist for so long.
In a way, K12 seems to have found a loophole into the brave new world of school vouchers, in that in at least some states in which they operate they receive per-pupil funds directly from school districts (just like not-for-profit charter schools). This allows K12 to compete on an even footing with public schools and not-for-profit charter schools (which receive a government-provided subsidy, in the form of school district funds, that is not available to other private schools). It's hard to see how this is a bad deal for parents and taxpayers, since it gives parents more choice for where they send their kids to school, and since if K12 should fail, it is the investors, and not the school district and its taxpayers, who will take the loss.
If there is going to be improvement in America's primary schools, my guess is it will be through for-profit schools which operate as charter schools and slip in under the radar, as it were, of the public debate surrounding school vouchers. The public debate about school vouchers, like most political debates, is so charged with hatred, rhetoric, and ideology, not to mention warped by the lobbying of special interests, that no solution is to be expected through overt or intentional political means. As in so many other areas of social life, order or progress is often brought about through unanticipated and unintended developments. In other words, progress often occurs despite the political process, not because of it. For this reason, I'll light a stick of incense tonight to the god of spontaneous order and pray that he lets us drift unexpectedly into a superior primary education system.