Setback for Philadelphia Schools Plan

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Six years ago, the Philadelphia School District embarked on what was considered the country's boldest education privatization experiment, putting 38 schools under private management to see if the free market could educate children more efficiently than the government.

If it worked, the plan seemed likely to become a model for other struggling urban school districts, such as Washington's, suffering from a lack of funding, decaying buildings and abysmal student test scores.

This month, the experiment suffered a severe setback, as the state commission overseeing Philadelphia's schools voted to take back control of six of the privatized schools, while warning 20 others that they had a year to show progress or they, too, would revert to district control.

Students at Philadelphia's schools have made improvements overall, the commission said. But the private-run schools are not doing any better than the schools remaining under public control.

Longtime opponents of the privatization plan immediately said the decision showed that the experiment of turning schools over to private managers and market forces -- an idea popular with pro-school-choice Republicans and pushed at the time President Bush was taking office in Washington -- had run its course.

"The lesson around Philadelphia's privatization experiment shows what we already knew -- that there is not a silver bullet to the problems of large, urban public school systems," said Helen Gym, a founding member of the group Parents United for Public Education. "It has not been the innovative, spectacular system as it was sold to the citizens of this city.

"They had an unprecedented opportunity to turn things around in Philadelphia . . . and they failed miserably overall," added Gym, a former public school teacher. "If you're really trying to turn around public schools in your city and do it right, you should not even spend a minute looking at privatization."

Of the six schools being de-privatized, four are run by the New York-based for-profit school management firm Edison Schools, which operates in 19 states and the District, as well as in London. Edison was founded in 1992 by a group of educators, scholars and business executives, including former Yale University president Benno C. Schmidt.

Edison also has management contracts for 12 other Philadelphia schools that have been effectively put on a one-year probation to show significant improvement.

Edison was given a total of 20 schools to manage in Philadelphia. Four of them are considered to be making enough gains to continue the contracts without probation.

Company officials said they were disappointed with the decision, and they dispute that the schools they manage have failed to show progress. Todd McIntire, Edison's general manager overseeing the Philadelphia schools, said some studies that the firm provided showed progress at the Edison-managed schools.

The disagreement is over how the studies were prepared, how the comparisons were made and precisely what was being measured.

One 2007 study, by Rand, looked at reading and math scores and concluded, "There were no statistically significant effects, positive or negative, in reading or math in any of the four years after takeover."

That study found that "the achievement gains in Philadelphia's privately managed schools were, on average, no different from Philadelphia's district-wide gains." The study noted that some might say the competition with the privately run schools spurred the public schools to improve, but added that "we found little reason to believe that competition from private providers spurred the district-wide improvement."

Edison provided another 2007 study, co-authored by Paul E. Peterson of the Hoover Institution and written for Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, which concluded that "the average student at schools managed by for-profit firms learned more in math than would be expected had the schools remained under district management." This study found no statistically significant reading gains.

Among other factors that should be considered, McIntire said, was that Edison in 2002 took over the management of some schools that were already among the city's lowest-performing, and that improvement should be measured against the starting point.

"The district did not share with us specifically what criteria they used to make these judgments," McIntire said in a telephone interview. "We certainly would like to know more about how these determinations are being made.

"These schools had all shown improvement over the six years that we worked with them," McIntire said. He said that at one of the Philadelphia schools, 95 percent of students were functioning below their grade level when Edison took over in 2002 and that now the proportion has dropped to about one-third.

The privatization effort was highly controversial from the beginning, with the arguments shaded by politics and ideology, and was vehemently opposed by many in the community who feared that their schools were being used essentially to test an unproven theory: that using market principles, the private sector could manage schools and make more progress at lower expense than the government.

Philadelphia's schools were largely considered as failing and in financial distress when they were taken over by the state in 2002, and the local school board was replaced by the state School Reform Commission, which still has oversight. At the time of the takeover, the State House was in Republican hands; then-Gov. Mark Schweiker in 2001 had replaced Tom Ridge, who went to Washington to join Bush's administration.

Also, in 2001, Congress had passed Bush's signature education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, that sanctioned aggressive intervention for chronically failing school districts, including state takeover, restructuring and privatization of the school management.

Edison was initially being considered to manage all the city's public schools, but after widespread community protests, that number was pared to 20, with other schools going to a variety of other firms and universities.

What has changed in Philadelphia, as elsewhere across the country, appears to be the political atmosphere. Pennsylvania's governor is now a Democrat, Edward G. Rendell. And the privatization wave now seems a little passé.

Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia, a longtime opponent of the privatization plan, said the experiment vindicated his belief that for-profit entities with an eye on Wall Street and the bottom line should not manage public schools.

"This has been the pattern -- the kids have not improved substantially," Fattah said in a telephone interview. "Everyone is looking for a quick fix. What they sell you on is they can do it cheaper and better."

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