Second chance for privatization

City schools: After EAI's failed effort, state has chance to prove third-party management isn't taboo.

September 29, 1999

THE WRECKAGE from Educational Alternative Inc.'s early '90s privatization experiment is still smoking in certain corners of the Baltimore school system. And now comes the Maryland State Department of Education, proposing another dalliance with outside management of troubled public schools.

Is this a case of failure to learn from past mistakes?

Not likely. The state has a plan for privatization -- which places it light years ahead of the EAI deal. And in the context of the current reconstitution program -- which has failed to take definitive action against schools that don't improve -- how could this plan not be an improvement?

Last week, the State Board of Education requested proposals for third-party management of the state's reconstitution-eligible schools. The third parties can be nonprofit agencies, universities, foundations or for-profit companies. In December, the state will decide which companies -- if any -- merit the chance to take over troubled schools.

Several things make this an entirely different proposal than the EAI mess, but the most important is that this privatization venture would be part of the existing plan to improve the lowest-performing schools. Since 1994, reconstitution has required detailed improvement plans from these schools, documentation of nearly everything they do to achieve their goals. The schools face takeover -- and possible closure -- if they don't improve. So far, though, the state hasn't imposed that penalty.

A third-party manager would step into that process, acting as an agent of the state in the takeover. If the state does its job -- that contractor would comply with the same meticulous documentation demanded of the schools. The contractors could act as the needed hammer to drive through reconstitution.

EAI didn't face those kind of strictures in Baltimore. Nor did it operate as part of a well-functioning structure. The company's academic improvement plans were sketchy, and its efforts were not well-supervised. Then-Superintendent Walter G. Amprey acted more as EAI's cheerleader than as the school system's guardian.

The state cannot repeat that mistake.

If the state proceeds cautiously with this plan, and ensures that safeguards are in place to prevent abuses, this plan might just work. EAI's crash and burn in Baltimore soured a lot of people on privatization, and the state has an opportunity to show that it's not a taboo.

That will happen, though, only if Maryland's worst schools actually get better. Everyone would benefit from that kind of outcome.

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