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As Rhee Weighs Privatization, Doubts Abound
Since then, the growth of independently operated charter schools and national groups including KIPP and Imagine Schools, which operate multiple campuses in the city, have dramatically altered the education landscape. In that new climate, along with stronger federal mandates to improve schools, experts say privatization might have a stronger chance to win approval.
Education activists cite Rhee's expressions of no confidence in the central office administration as an indication that she is more inclined to seek outside help. She has asked the D.C. Council to give her authority to fire hundreds of office employees she considers incompetent.
Out of frustration, some who oppose charter schools are willing to give privatization a try.
"I'm in support of it," said Mark Roy, who serves on an advisory restructuring team at Eastern Senior High School. "I'm at the fed-up point. I'm just tired of waiting."
John Gibson, acting Eastern Senior High PTA president, said the idea gives him the impression that Rhee and her deputies lack the skills needed to address the school system's complex problems.
"This shows me [Fenty] hasn't picked a seasoned leader to move schools forward," he said. "This says to me you're not creative enough to figure this out."
Some experts say the groups Rhee identified privately to parents last week -- Sacramento-based St. HOPE Public Schools, where Rhee previously served as a board member; Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia; and Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles -- are solid. Officials at those nonprofits said they had not entered into contracts.
"The chancellor has identified some of the best organizations nationally doing this kind of work," said William H. Guenther, president and founder of Mass Insight Education and Research Institute in Boston, which studies school reform. "The challenge is how fast and how far you can go."
But in many places testing the concept, the results have been mixed.
Philadelphia is considered a leader in the movement and put 38 academically troubled schools under the management of six groups.
Even though more tax money went to the privately run schools, test data showed that they "didn't fare any better than the rest of the district," said school system spokeswoman Felecia D. Ward. As a result, she said, school leaders want to take a closer look at the schools and their operators.
Steve Barr, founder and chief executive of Green Dot, said a D.C. education official called him recently to ask about the firm's management of 12 charters in impoverished areas of Los Angeles. Barr said that he was not asked to expand to Washington and that if he had been, he would have declined.
Still, he said, he admires Rhee for thinking innovatively.
"If I'm a superintendent in a district that's been failing for generations, I'm going to try something different," he said. "It's not a place for marginal tinkering."