When Big-City Schools Flunk

What's going on with Philadelphia's public schools warrants diverting a little attention away from anthrax and Afghanistan. The sixth-largest school district in the United States is on the verge of its own kind of radicalization.

Or, to be more accurate, the kind of radicalization urged by Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker. The governor has put forward a plan to privatize the top management of the schools and bring local organizations, from businesses to churches, more actively into the operation of failing schools (see story, page 12).

This move is hardly a whim. Philadelphia's schools, like many in other big US cities, are for the most part a disaster. Fifty-seven percent of students fail state math and reading tests. The drop-out rate is nearly 50 percent by junior year of high school. Some 65,000 students are suspended each year.

A state takeover was only a matter of time, but it's far from universally welcome. The city's mayor, John Street, has squared off against the governor, decrying the loss of local control and calling the privatization plan "fantasyland."

Such resistance is understandable. The tradition of locally run public schools is strong throughout the country. In Philadelphia, as in other places that have faced a state-mandated takeover of schools - Chicago, Baltimore, Newark, for instance - one clear need is a spirit of partnership, not hostility.

Partnership starts with putting the interest of the schoolchildren first. The students in Philadelphia are mostly from minority groups, and many are from non-English-speaking homes. They can't be allowed to reach adulthood with substandard educations.

Some critics of the plan say all that's needed is a massive injection of money, to bring per-pupil spending up to the level of the suburbs. But the real key is focusing the funds available squarely on students' needs.

Schweiker would bring in managers from the Edison Schools Inc., a pioneer in private management of public schools. The company would promise to weed out waste and strengthen curricula and teacher preparation.

The teachers' union and its local allies decry the end of "public" education and the danger of corporate profit motives. And, true, Edison has a clear business stake in making things work better in Philadelphia's classrooms. It's never before taken on a project of this scale, though it does operate 136 public schools in 53 cities.

But the company may never get a chance to show what it can do in Philadelphia if the naysayers raise their volume. A better tack for the city would be to work with the state. The children deserve no less.

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