- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

CHESTER, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s first major experiment in school privatization is coming to an ugly end in this poverty-stricken city of abandoned buildings, vacant lots and closed-down shipyards on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Edison Schools, a for-profit company hired four years ago to run eight of the city’s nine schools, is pulling out in June, partly because it has not been paid about $4 million in fees.

The decision followed a tumultuous year that began poorly — with book shortages, teacher shortages and a riot at the high school that led to 28 arrests — and steadily became worse, with Edison at the mercy of local officials when it came to control over the district’s finances and getting the information it needed to do its job.

Among other things, it turned out that the district’s poor accounting concealed a $35 million budget deficit. District officials said recently that without an immediate loan to pay teachers, the system would have just $9 left in the bank.

?We have not been able to work well together,? Edison spokesman Adam Tucker said. ?We knew that we were no longer going to be enough of an active agent for positive change.?

Michael F.X. Gillin, chairman of the state-appointed board that brought in Edison, said the tempest has left him dispirited. Next year, he said, the district will reopen without private companies.

?At this point, that is probably the best thing that could happen,? Mr. Gillin said. ?There are a lot of social problems down there. You can’t just blame the administration or Edison for the kids’ low test scores.?

Edison, founded in 1992, is the nation’s biggest private operator of public schools. It runs about 157 public schools across the country and has had mixed success.

Edison stayed only a short time in places like Dallas and Minneapolis, where officials concluded it hadn’t improved things enough to justify its fees. In other districts, like Baltimore and Philadelphia, Edison has taken over hard-luck schools, produced improvements in student performance and won acceptance.

In 2001, a board installed by the state to oversee the woeful 6,000-student Chester Upland School District brought in Edison. The past year was especially turbulent.

In March, an elementary school that was infested with rats and contaminated with asbestos shut its doors after it was declared unfit for students. Hundreds of youngsters finished the year at another school.

A 28-year-old principal, hired in midwinter to turn around the high school, was charged in April with having sex with a 16-year-old student. Prosecutors dropped the charges last week after the girl recanted, but the incident shook the school.

Also in May, a principal who had presided over one of the few schools at which Chester Upland students had shown significant improvement on standardized tests was fired over accusations that she had helped students at another school cheat on exams.

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