We can rescue schools and turn a profit

David A. Bennett

June 12, 1992|By David A. Bennett

MINNEAPOLIS — AMERICA'S public-school system is on the verge of radical change.

The question facing reformers is whether the system will be reinvented or circumvented.

The loudest shot across public education's bow was fired by Christopher Whittle, who induced Benno C. Schmidt to quit as Yale's president to head the Edison Project, which seeks to create a national for-profit private-school system.

More recently, on Tuesday the Baltimore public schools hired my company, Education Alternatives Inc., to run nine inner-city schools with 5,100 students.

The Edison Project and Education Alternatives face common criticism: Traditional educators say private business, being profit-oriented, has no business in public schools.

Nonsense. Schools have long purchased goods and services from the private sector.

Other monopolistic public utilities are publicly regulated but privately managed for profit.

In municipalities where public services have been successfully privatized, citizens don't care who delivers them, only that they are delivered well.

We agree with Mr. Whittle and Mr. Schmidt that the way most public schools are run frustrates the best efforts of school board members, superintendents, principals and teachers to provide taxpayers with a solid return on their money -- a full and proper education for their children.

But we disagree with the Edison Project's plan to circumvent -- to compete with (and unintentionally undermine) the public schools by needlessly building 1,000 profit-making technologically advanced schools that, Messrs. Whittle and Schmidt hope, will serve as models for revolution in education.

It is healthier in our democracy to save the public schools and their infrastructure -- to reinvent the system -- by a public-private arrangement.

In Baltimore we expect to improve student performance and attendance and decrease dropout rates for the same $26.1 million the city has spent on the nine schools -- and still turn a profit.

We are co-managing (with the Dade County school system) a South Miami Beach, Fla., elementary school and running private schools in Minnesota and Arizona. (In Duluth, Minn., we are concluding a short-term contract for managing the school district.)

Presumably, the Edison Project, in operating proprietary schools, will choose students it wants and reject others.

But in working with public schools we are obliged to work with all children. No elitism here.

How do you save schools, save money and increase revenues?

Reduce the number and cost of non-instructional staff members; collaborate with government to avoid duplication (does a town need separate public and school libraries?); schedule a 12-month school year to maximize the use of facilities; rent excess space to private groups or public agencies; lease school technology for use after the school day is over; use cafeterias to feed the community; make buildings more energy-efficient; require students to help keep schools neat and clean, thus reducing custodial services.

We've done some of these things, with no union problems, and plan to do the rest.

The Edison Project thinks it can operate schools at $5,500 a student each year, just about the national average. We have shown we can.

But the Edison Project apparently needs state legislation for a voucher approach that would enable parents to send children to public or private schools. We have done without vouchers.

Traditionally run public schools are sinecures that are often unresponsive to parents' and students' needs.

But if we don't listen we get fired.

Baltimore hired us for five years; if it doesn't like our work, it can drop us after a year.

RF The risk to both parties is worth it. And the children can't lose.

David A. Bennett, a public-school administrator for 20 years, is president of Education Alternatives Inc.

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