- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

A group of 12 private consultants were hired this week to help Philadelphia revamp its troubled schools in the country's largest privatization experiment.
Pennsylvania's school-reform commission, which oversees the country's seventh-largest school district, voted Tuesday to award a contract to New York-based Edison Schools Inc. and 11 other similar for-profit companies.
Under the agreement, the firms will review current curriculum, create a plan to improve test scores and find ways to reduce costs in food services. They will also review the district's administration, principal and teacher recruitment and retention, and evaluate classroom behavior management.
The firms, however, will not manage the school system.
"Reform-minded educators across the country have been paying close attention to our historic efforts in Philadelphia, and I have to believe they like what they have seen [on Tuesday]," Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker said in a written statement.
"It means the end of business as usual and … new and exciting educational resources and expertise, focused squarely on creating a better learning environment."
Anti-privatization groups and some parents and opposed the partnership, saying companies like Edison will only worsen the already troubled school system because the firms don't have enough experience to work in large school districts.
"What experience do they have in determining what curriculum our children need and what teachers should be hired," sad Darlene Battle, vice president of the Pennsylvania Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
"These companies will go in and change the format, and it will be a shock to the children and they will withdraw," Miss Battle said.
Edison Schools is the nation's largest private operator of public schools, with 75,000 students and 136 schools in 22 states, including Nevada, California, Maryland, Texas and Florida. Philadelphia's school system has 265 schools and nearly 220,000 students and a budget of $1.7 billion.
Commission Chairman James E. Nevels defended the agreement, saying the companies will help the city school system solve its financial and educational problems.
The majority of Philadelphia's students score in the bottom quarter on state reading and math tests, and the district has predicted a budget shortfall this year of $107 million, state officials have said.
"We know there will be controversy, but there is never reform without controversy," he said.
Many details of the plan have not been worked out, including how much the consultants will be paid and whether their employees would replace public school district employees.
Edison officials acknowledged yesterday that their company is not perfect and not every school they manage is doing academically well. Company officials said that out of the 136 they oversee, 12 schools are doing below their expectations.
Those schools are in Michigan, San Francisco, Kansas and New Jersey, said Adam Tucker, an Edison Schools spokesman. Edison Schools has also faced contract terminations in some schools in Texas and Florida, and had a rocky start in a school district in Delaware.
"We're not happy we have 12 schools that are not doing well," Mr. Tucker said. "But what we do is not easy, and we try our best to improve the schools."
School privatization has been a point of contention for years among educators across the country as they have tried to come up with ways to improve the country's public education system.
Supporters say the partnerships like the one in Philadelphia put pressure on traditional public schools by raising curriculum standards.
"It puts existing bureaucracies on notice, that it's not OK to do what they've been doing," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington.
But opponents say such partnerships could put the interest of stockholders before the interests of the students.
"This is not a good route to take," said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation think tank.


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