As Rhee Weighs Privatization, Doubts Abound

By Theola Labbé and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 18, 2007

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, in considering turning over the management of 27 failing public schools to nonprofit charter education firms, is sending a clear signal that she intends to shake up the moribund bureaucracy that has failed generations of students.

But experts and school advocates say they are uneasy about the lack of details surrounding her idea, particularly given evidence across the country that charters and schools under private management sometimes fare no better than traditional public schools.

"There's nothing in the literature [to suggest] that privatization will get you revolutionary results," said Henry M. Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Rhee, under pressure from the No Child Left Behind law, must take a drastic approach with the 27 schools deemed in need of "restructuring" -- those that have failed to meet academic targets for five consecutive years -- or risk losing federal funds. Enlisting education management firms and turning the schools into charters are two of five options the law offers.

With all but a few of the city's 140 schools designated as in need of improvement, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) hired Rhee in June with a mandate to improve student achievement as quickly as possible. But her approach is garnering criticism from parents, the Washington Teachers' Union and some members of the D.C. Council, who question the wisdom of putting public schools under the authority of private firms.

"We have a new leadership team in the city. You go to outside private entities when you give up on the government," said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a former school board member. "This is the wrong time, when we're making an investment and showing that government can run its own schools."

The District is not alone in its dilemma. About 1,000 schools nationwide need restructuring. Experts predict that the number will grow to 5,000 -- representing 5 percent of U.S. schools -- by the end of the decade.

The remedy options outlined under the federal law are: Bring in private firms to manage the schools; convert them into charters; keep them under the system's control but replace the principals and teachers; allow the state -- or in Washington, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education -- to seize the schools; or devise something else.

States and districts with schools that need restructuring most often choose to replace staff and create their own solutions, such as training teachers, lengthening the school day and year, and introducing new curricula, experts say.

Last week, Rhee mentioned three national charter operators in restructuring meetings with school leaders from Cardozo and Roosevelt senior high schools in Northwest Washington. When she appeared with Fenty at a news conference Friday to discuss the issue, she said she is not favoring one school reform option over another but is researching them all.

Rhee said she will meet with more school leaders and then make a decision in January or February. Deborah A. Gist, the District's state superintendent of education, is awaiting Rhee's plan, which must be approved by her office.

Rhee is not the first D.C. schools chief to consider education management firms for troubled public schools. Frustrated by dismal test scores across the city, in 1993 School Superintendent Franklin L. Smith wanted to hire Education Alternatives to manage 15 failing schools. Amid an angry community reaction that labeled the proposal racist and elitist, the Board of Education opposed it and Smith abandoned privatization.

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."

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