Over the objections of a coalition of 40 community groups, a Pennsylvania school reform panel has voted to hire several for-profit education management firms to run Philadelphia's failing schools.
The panel hopes these firms will help turn the struggling schools into laboratories of student achievement while cutting costs. The idea is not a new one, but it's creating lots of new controversy. Some educators and activists question the performance claims made by a number of firms.
There are 36 private firms, known as Education Management Organizations (EMO's), running 368 schools in 24 states.
The daddy of them all is Edison, a New York-based for-profit company with 136 schools in 22 states.
As part of a two-year contract, Edison will craft an "action plan" for Philadelphia's failing schools. Eleven other entities, including the University of Pennsylvania and the Deloitte & Touche consulting firm, have been hired to provide as-yet undefined support.
The concept of privatizing public schools first gained currency about ten years ago when some politicians suggested that a market driven approach to education would solve problems with accountability, school board politics and management issues. They also said it would raise the quality of education by instilling competition.
Education mamagement companies also start charter schools -- public schools that cut red tape in an effort to improve student performance. Michigan and Arizona have the most privatized schools.
"You get better quality with better management from EMOs because they have the advantage of being outside school board politics. You don't have to deal with the changing direction of school board politics and you don't have to please everyone," education consultant Ted Rebarber says. Rebarber, who heads a non-profit research group called Accountability Works, is a former Edison employee.
Michigan State Rep. Wayne Kuipers (R), who chairs the Michigan House Education Committee, is another supporter. Privatization "gives another layer of choice to parents," he says. But Kuipers admits the verdict is still out on how much schools run by education management firms raise achievement.
"They have certainly made some gains but it is a fairly new experiment," he says.
Several community groups fought the Philadelphia privatization plan, saying Edison hadn't made any significant changes in the two years it has run schools in nearby Chester Upland, PA.
"Edison hasn't brought about better achievement. They have an allegiance to stock holders, they want to make a profit, and they end up siphoning off already scarce resources from public education - which is a real problem," Aldustus Jordan of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth told Stateline.org.
Edison's fourth annual report on school performance claims that 84 percent of its schools are achieving at higher levels than when the company took over. The October 2001 report also said Edison schools have raised the percentage of students who meet state standards for achievement by an average of six percent every year from 1995-2001.
But the company doesn't release information documenting these claims, and critics say there is little to support them. "We don't have any evidence that there is a real impact of EMOs on achievement. Some schools are doing better and in some cases they are doing worse, but in a lot of the cases schools run by private companies do the same achievement-wise as their public school counterparts," says Henry Levin, who heads the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NSCPE) at Columbia University.
NCSPE recently completed a survey which showed that privatization has little effect on student achievement.
"Competition is not the death knell of public education, on the other hand it isn't the savior either. We will have to do far more fundamental things to improve the quality of education. We have to worry about children's families, their health, their nutrition and an awful lot of things that make a bigger difference in student achievement," Levin said.