Troubled system, radical response

A plan in Philadelphia would create the country's largest experiment with private control of public schools.

The speaker is pumping up the crowd that's gathered in front of Philadelphia's City Hall. "They are a slew of vultures who see dollar signs and not our children!" she shouts, as her listeners roar with approval. "Who gave them the idea that they know how to educate us?" Fists punctuate the air, banners gyrate, drums pound, and the crowd roars again.

The protest late last week by several hundred students, parents, teachers, and union members was just the latest in a testy exchange over what could become the nation's largest experiment with privatizing public education. And for many of its opponents, the proposal is soured by a further blow: aggressive state marketing of the initiative.

The conflict has left observers on both sides uncertain whether Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker's proposal is a bold stroke or a naive blunder.

"Nobody's ever really contemplated having a private company at the helm of a major public school system," says Rick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In terms of success or failure, he says, "This thing could cut either way."

Officials at New York-based Edison Schools Inc. - the private management company most likely to be brought in to manage the Philadelphia schools - say their track record should be reassuring. Of the 65 contracts Edison has entered into with public school districts, 62 are still intact. "I understand [the protestors'] concerns; I understand their commitment to Philadelphia, but we at Edison know, we absolutely know, we can create the kind of district everyone wants," says spokesman Adam Tucker.

Schools in dire need of reform

The one point on which all sides agree is that the 210,000-student school system - the eighth largest in the United States - is in serious trouble.

About 57 percent of Philadelphia students have inadequate math and reading skills, and 70 percent live at or below the poverty level. Dropout rates hover around 50 percent, 65,000 suspensions are handed out annually, and the city's high schools have a daily absentee rate of about 25 percent.

Past efforts at reform have done little to move the system beyond its entrenched problems. A reform-minded superintendent brought in during the 1990s failed to turn the tide, as did large sums of money poured into Philadelphia schools by the Annenberg Foundation.

In addition, the school system's deficit is now projected to balloon to $1.5 billion by 2006.

The state's response was to spend $2.7 million earlier this year to bring in the New York-based privately held Edison Schools Inc. to study the troubled system and make a proposal. Edison concluded that the primary obstacle to success was ineffective bureaucracy.

If Edison itself were allowed to manage the schools, the report went on to suggest, it would be able to improve education and save money at the same time.

Although Edison has yet to be officially named as the company to be hired, its proposal is the one the state is embracing. Unless a different agreement can be reached with the city by Nov. 30, says Governor Schweiker, Pennsylvania will take over Philadelphia's public schools.

Management of the schools would shift from the city's school board to a five-member School Reform Commission, with four appointed by the state and one by the city. The 55 top managers running the city schools would be replaced by the private company.

In addition, according to the governor's plan, the city's 264 schools would be divided into three groups. The top 30 or 40 - judged to be performing satisfactorily - would be left alone. The middle 170 would benefit from extra funding for textbooks, school maintenance, and professional development.

The worst-performing 60 would be turned over to the private company, in collaboration with various community groups - a situation that would, in effect, mean that the private company could be reporting to itself with respect to these schools.

Varying degrees of success in other cities

About half the states in the US have laws that allow them to seize control of failing school systems. In recent years, New Jersey, Illinois, and Michigan, among other states, have exercised these powers, with limited degrees of success.

But in terms of privatization, Philadelphia would become an experiment on a much larger scale than anything yet proposed in the US.

For cities that have gone the private route, results have been mixed at best. The Hartford, Conn., school system - much smaller than Philadelphia's - underwent a brief and disastrous experience in the mid-1990s with a private company at the helm. In that case, claims that entrepreneurs would quickly cut through red tape and produce better results for fewer dollars proved unrealistic.

Despite setbacks to the privatization drive, many experts say they are not ready to give up on the idea. In the case of Hartford, says Professor Hess, "that was then. The context is different now." Since the Hartford failure, he says, "We've now got a number of firms that have been doing this for a number of years."

None of those firms, however, can yet point to definitive rates of success. Edison - the largest of all the private educational management firms, with control of 136 public schools in 53 cities - recently released a report claiming academic improvement at 84 percent of its schools. But many question the accuracy of those claims.

"If privatization is a magic formula, we have yet to see it work," says Henry Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at New York's Columbia University. Yet, he adds, that doesn't mean it's not worth a try in Philadelphia. "Look, these schools are not doing so well," he says. "We have to try something."

But that's exactly the attitude that has infuriated and frightened a certain segment of Philadelphia. For some of the city's educators, parents, students, and community leaders, the idea of becoming a large-scale experiment is appalling.

"Schools are supposed to be about learning, not about making profits," says Fred Pinguel, a senior at Central High School, the city's crown jewel.

"What if Coca-Cola came in and decided to run our schools?" asks Quan Blanche, a 2000 graduate of the city's Benjamin Franklin High School who came for what he called "the anti-Edison rally."

Many say there's no secret as to what ails Philadelphia's schools. They receive about $2,000 less per student than other schools in the state. Boost funding, they say, and city schools would have a fighting chance.

For many at last week's rally, Edison's involvement with the city schools was a foregone and distasteful conclusion. While some protesters were well informed about the company and its track record, however, others were relying heavily on rumors. Some students insisted, for instance, that Edison eliminates all extracurricular activities and dismantles magnet schools in the systems it manages. Neither claim is true.

Edison offered to bus any interested Philadelphia parents to see schools they manage in Baltimore, but as of last week, only seven parents had done so. "When people won't even come to an Edison school, that's frustrating," Mr. Tucker says.

Concerns range from racism to job losses

For some protesters, the most disturbing idea was that of wresting control of the schools away from the city. "The state doesn't know anything about our children," says Irene Sampson, a secretary at West High School. "Outside control just isn't going to work," says David Ezekiel, a retired high school math teacher.

To some civic groups, outside control smacks of racism. Among Philadelphia's schoolchildren, 70 percent are students of color, while most state legislators are white. Jerome Montdesire, president of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, has come out strongly against the plan, as have a number of members of the black clergy.

Unions, too, have been quick to denounce the proposal. Although the local teachers union has had a mixed reaction - some are intrigued by promises of bonuses for high-performing teachers and administrators - unions controlling janitorial and other services fear job losses.

Some say both Edison and Schweiker have grossly underestimated the degree of public resistance they will meet. But for Edison, the situation ought to have a touch of déjà vu. In New York earlier this year, the mayor hoped to see Edison manage five of its failing schools. Parental opposition quickly squashed the proposal.

In Philadelphia, backers of the plan seem confident that things will simmer down soon. "The governor's plan is a detailed, complex proposal," says Charles Zogby, the state's secretary of education. "I think once the parents start to sift through it and really understand it, the impression will be very different.

So far, though, there are few signs that emotions are being soothed. One speaker at last week's rally insisted there wouldn't be a day of peace in Philadelphia if the state went ahead with the takeover.

"I just feel like crying every time I think of it," says parent Elayne Blender. "To me, it feels anti-city."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

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