Does 'privatizing' schools work?

March 24, 1994|By Keith Geiger

HAS Education Alternatives Inc., the private company hired to run several public schools in Baltimore City, really managed to improve student learning?

After taking a hard look at EAI's operations in Baltimore, I think the answer to that question is "no."

EAI, based in Minneapolis, currently runs nine Baltimore City public schools (and has management, but not educational, contracts in three others). Although the schools' teachers and principals remain school district employees, EAI has operational control of the schools and has put into place Tesseract -- the company's education program.

Tesseract is based on sound theory. It calls for small classes, two adults in every classroom, cooperative and active student learning, heavy use of computer learning, professional development for teachers, flexibility in student grouping and education plans tailored to each student with active parent involvement.

The problem comes in the gap between Tesseract theory -- as applied at South Pointe Elementary in Miami, Fla., where EAI serves as educational consultant -- and EAI's practice in Baltimore. EAI has cut corners in Baltimore to save money and earn higher profits for itself and its business partners.

At EAI-run Harlem Park Middle School, there are academic classes with more than 40 students. Students tell of classrooms so crowded they're forced to share desks as well as books. Teachers say their teaching interns are often pulled out of the classroom to serve as substitutes or hall monitors.

EAI has drastically reduced the number of music, art and physical and special education teachers in its Baltimore schools. The special education program -- the most expensive aspect of public schooling -- has been absorbed into the regular classroom with little training or support offered to classroom teachers.

Concerns also have been expressed about student learning and attendance rates at the EAI schools. No objective measure has shown any improvement in student achievement so far. And attendance at EAI schools improved at about the same rate as at non-Tesseract schools in Baltimore last year.

EAI has teamed up with the accounting firm of KPMG Peat Marwick and the facility management company Johnson Controls World Services to run its financial, purchasing, maintenance and food services. This team has received widespread praise for circumventing the bureaucracy in making repairs, shortening delivery time for supplies and installing computers.

Cutting through bureaucracy is positive, but EAI and its business partners are taking part of their profits out of the pockets of the lowest paid school employees -- classroom aides and custodians.

EAI replaced the aides and custodians, who were school district employees earning livable wages with benefits, with employees who work directly for EAI or Johnson Controls. Both earn considerably lower wages, and teacher aides receive no health insurance or other benefits.

The harsh truth is that there's no simple answer to the complex problems of troubled schools. Neither EAI nor any other company holds a magic key.

Baltimore School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey has said that he is frustrated by bureaucracies that are so complex and cumbersome they can't get leaking roofs fixed or teachers transferred from under- to over-enrolled schools in a timely manner. He sees EAI as a way to compensate for an unwieldy bureaucracy.

But an admission by a top administrator that his bureaucracy is out of control does not constitute an argument for hiring private companies to circumvent that bureaucracy.

Instead, superintendents need to fix their bureaucracies -- to make them responsive to students and the staff who work directly with students. It can and has been done within the public sector, and school administrators should learn from what educators have accomplished in the Key School in Indianapolis, East Harlem's District 4 and the schools working with Dr. James Comer's School Development Program.

Radical solutions are needed for the serious problems of America's most troubled schools. Those solutions might include arrangements with private contractors on a straight fee-for-service basis. But allowing a for-profit company to take any savings thus realized out of the public schools and use them as profits for corporate executives and shareholders -- as the EAI contract in Baltimore does -- invites the company to cut corners and pocket the difference. If "privatization" really does produce savings over public administration bureaucracies, those savings should be used to provide better education for students.

Keith Geiger is president of the National Education Association.

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