Education's Scandal to Come

December 11, 1993|By M. WILLIAM SALGANIK

There's a scandal coming in education. I don't know where orwhen, but I know the general area that will be involved: the hiring of private, for-profit companies to deliver educational services.

I'm not saying privatization is necessarily a bad thing; it's a good idea for some schools and some services. Baltimore is leading the way in this area with a private firm operating nine city schools and another conducting some remedial classes. It's to the credit of the school board and Superintendent Walter G. Amprey that they're willing to try new ways of doing things. But it's an area where the rules are being made up as the game is played, and there are bound to be some fouls called.

First, some history. There was another flurry of interest in privatization just over 20 years ago. It combined two themes we can see in education now: an emphasis on accoun- tability for money spent and the idea that private business can be more innovative and more efficient than big school bureaucracies. The confluence of these two ideas was ''performance contracting'' -- companies would teach and would be paid according to how much kids learned.

More than 100 schools around the country tried performance contracts during the 1970-71 school year. Companies large and small rushed in -- as large as Westinghouse, as small as a new company formed by football star Fran Tarkenton. The cover story in The American School Board Journal in October 1971 was ''Almost Everything You Need to Know About Performance Contracting.''

Soon, everything you needed to know about performance contracting consisted of this: First, a federal evaluation found that performance contracts worked no better than traditional programs. Second, there was evidence of contractors cheating. In addition to general shoddy work in a number of schools by some bottom-line-oriented contractors, skeptical members of the teachers' union in Providence, Rhode Island, found a contractor teaching parts of the standardized test that was to be used to evaluate progress and determine payment.

Education panaceas have a curious resilience. Ideas come along, fail, drop from sight for a while and then reappear. When they do come back, no one seems to remember why they didn't work before.

Are we doomed to repeat the failures of 1971? Maybe. Let's look at the two problems with performance contracting: ineffectiveness and the potential for corruption.

* Effectiveness: The education bureaucrats aren't getting the results we'd like, but is there reason to think private companies ,, can do better? Private companies have their errors and inefficiencies, too. (I've even seen some at The Baltimore Sun.) And while some companies are better than others, there's no particular reason to think a firm run by a Hall of Fame quarterback will do better than a school system run by somebody with a doctorate in education.

But ultimately, this isn't a question that calls for a ''reason to think'' answer. It calls for an empirical answer, but educators and school officials are moving ahead without one. Mayor Schmoke has expressed some concern that the privatization experiments in Baltimore haven't had a rigorous, independent evaluation. Yet city school officials are talking about expansion, and other cities -- this week, Washington -- are interested in buying in.

* Corruption: Given the millions of dollars at stake and the lack of clear rules, some seems inevitable. In Baltimore, there hasn't been competitive bidding, or even informal seeking of competitive proposals. The stock of Educational Alternatives, Inc., the company running the nine ''Tesseract'' schools, fluctuates wildly with news: down 10 percent last week when the Baltimore Teachers Union filed suit challenging the EAI contract, up almost as much on Wednesday when D.C. schools expressed interest and Baltimore's Board of Estimates approved EAI contracts at two more schools.

I'm certainly not saying there's anything ethically wrong in Baltimore. But what are the rules for bidding? For evaluating programs? For disclosure of personal interest? For whether city school officials can do consulting work for a firm which is doing business in the city?

Unless such questions are answered clearly and soon -- in Baltimore and in any other school district looking at privatization -- there will be a scandal. And if privatization fails the corruption test, we'll never get to find out if it passes the effectiveness test.

M. William Salganik, a former education writer, edits the Perspective section of The Sun.

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