My Own Private School District

The latest – and most dramatic – example of the continued privatization of the nation's urban public school districts came in June from the mouth of Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley.

"We must face the reality that – for schools that have consistently underperformed – it's time to start over," said Daley, who proceeded to announce that the city's school district, home to nearly 450,000 students and 602 schools, would shut down 100 poor-performing schools, turning two-thirds of those schools over to private management companies.

The private management companies, which operate charter and contract schools, "can shake things up and experiment with new approaches and new thinking," Daley says. Chicago, he believes, will become "the national laboratory of innovation for education – a place where the best ideas take root and bloom."

He's not alone in placing his faith with private companies to turn around failing public schools. Boston, Los Angeles, New York and – most significantly – Philadelphia are some of the big cities that have turned over some of their schools to private managers in recent years.

"There's a lot of pressure in large urban districts to do something different, and this is one of the things to do different," says Katrina Bulkley, an Assistant Professor of Educational Policy at Rutgers University, who studies the role of charter schools and Education Management Organizations (EMOs) in school reform efforts. Contracting schools out to private companies is "an idea that makes sense to a lot of people outside the education community and that gives it an inherent appeal," she says.

In the case of contract schools, private management companies take over an existing public school with the understanding they can run it with greater efficiency and with better student performance results than the school district. The relationship between the school district and the management company is typically negotiated on a yearly basis.

Charter schools, on the other hand, usually start from scratch with a five-year charter from their home school district. Free from some state and federal education mandates, charters traditionally have a less formal relationship with their school district than contract schools.

While charter schools have certainly gained ground in recent years and show no immediate signs of retreating, it's the Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) – both for-profit and non-profit – that have made the biggest splash in the country's urban schools.

Greg Richmond, head of Chicago Public Schools' Office of New Schools Development, says in the time since Daley's announcement several EMOs have already contacted him. "Those conversations have been very preliminary and until they advance further, I'd rather not be publicizing them by name," he says, via e-mail.

The push toward privatization is, not surprisingly, coming from outside the education world, says Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. Henig is also a faculty associate at the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College.

"In a lot of instances, Chicago is the latest example, the movement toward reform and privatization is coming from the mayor and the business community," says Henig.

"That's a reflection, in part, or made more feasible, by the increasing marginalization of the school board and the political isolation of education professionals locally," he says. Decision-making in a lot of large cities, says Henig, has shifted to a new set of actors, who are willing and interested to "shake things up."

But other than offering to shake up what some see as a moribund education system, what if the EMOs can actually do a better job of educating students?

The biggest player among the country's EMOs is Edison Schools, a for-profit firm establish in 1992 by entrepreneur Christopher Whittle.

Edison currently operates 130 public schools in more than 20 states. Two years ago, Edison was given control of 20 Philadelphia schools – another 20 Philadelphia schools are divided between five other management companies. Philadelphia remains Edison's biggest single-city endeavor to date, says Edison spokesman Adam Tucker. And neither Richmond nor Tucker would say whether Edison was going to increase its presence in Chicago. (The company currently operates one charter school in Chicago.)

When plans for Edison's 2002 take over in Philadelphia were first announced – and the number of schools was cut in half following protests from parents, students and educators – national education observers began watching the Philadelphia experiment closely.

Even though Chicago is following Philadelphia's lead, most experts agree it's about one year too early to make any judgments on the success or failure of Philadelphia's model. That's good news for Edison and the other managers; the just-released test results in Philadelphia show the district's schools outperforming the privately managed schools.

Last month, preliminary scores from the 2003-04 reading portion of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test show 15.3 percent of Philadelphia's fifth-grade students in EMO schools scored at a proficient or advanced level, compared to 37.6 percent of fifth-graders in the district-run schools. (Results from individual schools were not available in time for this story.)

The results from the math portion of the test show a similar gap between the EMO schools and the district schools, with 13.5 percent of fifth-graders in the EMO schools scoring at a proficient or advanced level, compared to 37.5 percent of fifth-graders in district schools meeting those levels.

School District of Philadelphia CEO Paul Vallas defends the EMOs, saying they were given the poorest performing schools, and though the number of students meeting proficient levels in math and reading are still low, the test scores have climbed in the past year. (The fifth-grade PSSA results for EMOs improved 5 percent in reading and 4.2 percent in math.)

"We didn't hire private managers to show that we're better," says Vallas. "We hired private managers because we wanted to improve those schools."

And he's pleased with the gains that have been made. But Vallas bluntly adds that any privately managed school that doesn't continue improvements next year will find itself with a new boss – either a new private manager or the school district.

Yet the question of whether the EMOs – which typically offer a by-the-book, scripted curriculum – are superior to district schools obscures the reality: This is the future of public school in America.

The federal No Child Left Behind legislation has flung open the doors for private companies to operate supplemental programs as well as entire schools, says Henig.

Though the number of EMOs was increasing in the years leading up to the 2002 passage of NCLB, the law reinforces the movement toward private managers, Henig says.

For instance, part of the NCLB law stipulates that a school which fails to show improved test scores for three consecutive years is eligible for "corrective action" from its school district, and that could include being turned over to private management. As the law enters its third year EMOs, especially for-profit managers, are positioning themselves for a large market demand, says Henig.

"The political and policy environment is set in a way that is conducive to expand [EMOs] in the near term," says Henig. "If NCLB stays, districts are going to be looking for partners and easy solutions," he says. "For schools that fail to make progress, for a lot of communities, this is the easy way out. You don't have to know a lot to hire someone to come in and run your school."

Last year, Edison recorded its first operating profit ever, according to Tucker.

The fee it receives to operate a contract school varies from district-to-district, he says, but typically Edison receives roughly the same per-pupil funding as a district-run school.

In Philadelphia, Edison receives a $750 fee per student, that's on top of a district-standard $8,748 per pupil expenditure.

The additional funds go into the classroom, says Edison's Tucker. "We try to eliminate waste at an administrative level," he says. At its Philadelphia schools, that means eliminating non-teaching positions, such as paid, adult hall monitors, and redirecting money to support its teachers.

The risk of inviting private companies to take over public schools, says Henig, is that the EMOs could potentially control a large enough portion of an urban district to make cities dependent on them. "And then public officials would lose leverage to exercise their role as managers of the private companies," he says.

In the end, Henig sees two divergent scenarios. One possibility is the addition of EMOs serves to strengthen the coalition of actors involved in urban education who want to see better data, who want to see more choices extended to lower income families and who want to try new ideas, he says. "And that could bring an expansion of middle-class families back into urban schools," says Henig.

"That's the rosy scenario," he says.

"The less rosy scenario is that as the for-profit managers gain a beachhead [in urban districts] they begin to use their muscle to reshape the game and keep control of information," says Henig. "So that the [EMOs] decide what kind of data goes out and what doesn't," he says. "And then you begin to lose public sector authority and oversight capacity."

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