Who ya gonna call?

Many districts are turning to for-profit groups to manage troubled schools. But the idea can spur intense opposition - even when parents know there are entrenched problems.

Ronald Atkins and Debra Stewart are baffled about their respective children's academic futures.

Both have children in one of New York's worst schools. Both have seen education experiments come and go.

And both are being asked to consider a change that could profoundly affect their offsprings' educational options.

Parents in their Brooklyn neighborhood will soon vote on whether to convert a traditional school to a charter - an independent public school that would, in this case, be operated by a for-profit firm.

They want what's best for their kids. But like many parents around the US, these adults are being thrust into the role of instant policy experts who can negotiate a complex debate about competition and the ability of traditional schools to improve.

In the process, they're running up against a familiar problem: many promises, but minimal information. And increasingly, they're balking.

"What happens at school sets the tone for your child's life," Mr. Atkins says. "We know nothing about [this firm]," Ms. Stewart protests.

Their confusion mirrors debates occurring at all levels of America's educational establishment. It's evidence that the familiar choice - even if it may not seem as good - still holds powerful sway in many neighborhoods.

Even many of the so-called experts concede that they don't yet know enough about the performance of companies like the New York-based Edison Schools, which hopes to take over five of the city's worst-performing facilities. Although urban school districts from Dallas to Baltimore are experimenting with for-profit management of their public schools, little evidence yet exists that the strategy can produce results.

"There hasn't yet been any documented, long-term success," says Octavio Visiedo, a former superintendent of Florida's Dade County school system who is today chairman of for-profit Chancellor Academies, based in Miami. "The jury is still out. Anybody who tells you otherwise is not being realistic."

Edison is not the only player in this field, but it is one of only five or so such companies of significant size. Its 113 schools operate in 45 cities and serve 57,000 students. In Dallas, six Edison schools will open this fall, while Detroit officials say they're contemplating turning 13 of the city's public schools over to the company.

Get out the protest signs

New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy was just one more big-city official to make the leap when he proposed that Edison enter the market. But he quickly confronted serious opposition despite Edison's estimates that it has boosted test scores an average of 7 percent.

Opposing studies, including one by the American Federation of Teachers, the country's second-largest teachers union, claim Edison's test results are faulty and incomplete. The AFT, perhaps not surprisingly, insists that the company's track record is at best mixed and inconclusive.

Important philosophical questions have emerged as well, including the ethics of making money by educating schoolchildren. Charges of racism have also surfaced.

"There's a feeling in the black and brown community that they're profiting in the prison sector," says Bertha Lewis, executive director of the New York Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. "Now they're saying, let's go straight to the schools and make money."

But Edison is fighting back. It has held open meetings and question-and-answer sessions for parents, and offered them free bus trips to view Edison-run schools in Boston, Jersey City, Baltimore, and Washington.

It also points to the laptop computers for each student, longer school days, nationally regarded curriculum plans, and structural improvements to buildings that house the low-performing schools.

We don't see failure here

But for a significant number of parents, the choice is not obvious - nor are their schools necessarily failures. "There are many strengths to the school," says Ms. Stewart of I.S. 320, one of the schools in question. Her daughter, she says, has been successful there. Atkins points out that he has the home phone numbers of all the teachers. "They know me. With Edison, it will be a business."

"So Johnny will come home with a new textbook," scoffs Nancy Bogle, another IS 320 parent. "What's behind that? A for-profit company is all about self."

For Marshall Mitchell, the Edison executive who is heading up the company's New York City campaign, such comments are frustrating. "What reward and what comfort is there in mediocrity?" he asks. "Is familiarity enough?"

Some parents resist change in their schools simply because they've become discouraged by too many unsuccessful waves of reform. "They've been through multiple school designs, and there's a real sense that promises have been delivered and then have been broken," he says.

But private-management companies may represent just one more swing of the pendulum. Hartford, Conn., contracted with the Minneapolis-based, for-profit company Educational Alternatives Inc. in 1994. The company's assumptions about running the schools proved unrealistic, and relations between the management team and the school board quickly soured. The contract was terminated in 1996, when the state took over the schools and hired an experienced superintendent who has since succeeded in raising test scores in the troubled district.

Failures during the early phases with private management are far from conclusive. "Many of the early firms were naive," says Jane Hannaway, director of the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington. "To put Edison in that category would be unfair."

Parental support, board opposition

In San Francisco, Edison is coming under fire for other reasons. There, parents are defending the company, while the school board wants to send it packing.

The company currently manages a city charter school, and in two years has succeeded in boosting test scores and generally pleasing parents. But many teachers - asked to work more days and longer hours - have left, and the city's school board says it has serious philosophical objections to for-profit school companies.

Some New York community organizations share those concerns. "I have no doubt that if Edison took over these five schools, they'd do a good job," says Ernest Clayton, president of New York's United Parents Association.

His concern is the long-term impact. "It's the beginning of the privatization and dismantling of our public school system," he insists. "Eventually you will end up with another bureaucracy, but this one will be focused on making a profit."

Such worries are theoretical, and don't interest the average parent, says Edison's Mr. Mitchell. "That kind of debate and objection is almost a leisure-class activity," he says. "What most parents really care about is the potential to improve student achievement."

So do most observers of the education scene, says Henry Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York.

"What if suddenly we brought in loads of for-profits and they did a wonderful job?" he asks. "All of us would say, yes, if they can do that, we support them."

Realistically, he says, it will require at least three more years before enough data exist to back up claims of success. Meanwhile, implementation will continue.

"The jury's still out on lots of things, including charter schools," says Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. The US education establishment is good at enthusiastically latching on to new ideas, she says. "What we're not so good at is the evaluation process."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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