Privatizing schools calls for diplomacy

The Education Beat

Edison: A for-profit company that operates three Baltimore schools can learn from a previous group's problems here to avoid such occurrences in Philadelphia.

April 21, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WHAT A CAN of worms they've opened in Philadelphia!

A reform commission narrowly voted last week to privatize 42 of the school district's 264 schools. Those schools will be turned over to seven for-profit companies, universities and nonprofit groups. One of the for-profits is Edison Schools Inc., which runs three schools in Baltimore.

At week's end, there was much confusion in Philadelphia, and hundreds of the city's 13,000 teachers were seeking paperwork to transfer or quit.

It makes Baltimore look like a model of calm efficiency.

But Edison can learn some things from the nation's first large-scale experiment in privatization here and in Hartford, Conn., in the mid-1990s. Some of Edison's behavior in the City of Brotherly Love is disturbingly similar.

Remember that Baltimore's savior in the mid-1990s was Education Alternatives Inc., a Minnesota-based company with dreams of operating hundreds of schools throughout the country, putting in place a high-quality program with lots of computers, new textbooks and college-educated interns in every classroom.

It said it could do this for the same amount of money spent on any district school -- and still make a profit.

There was nothing wrong with the program, just as there's nothing wrong with Edison's. But EAI alienated three key groups in Baltimore and Hartford, and Edison appears to be doing the same in Philadelphia.

EAI failed to include the Baltimore Teachers Union as a full partner from the start. This angered the BTU, a weak union, but it also angered the BTU's parent body, the American Federation of Teachers. So wherever EAI sought to do business, there was the AFT to scream bloody murder. It was the beginning of the end for EAI.

It didn't scratch around enough in the grass roots and the neighborhoods around the schools it was taking over. EAI replaced the schools' paraprofessionals, most of whom lived near their jobs, with young interns who commuted from afar. And because the paraprofessionals are represented by the BTU, the union was infuriated.

Often ignored by EAI was advice from the people who count in every urban district: neighborhood leaders who might not talk like Ivy Leaguers but know how things work.

Finally, EAI alienated many of the 171 principals whose schools it wasn't taking over. These folks suspected from the start that the company was getting more than the average per-school allotment. When The Sun demonstrated that EAI was indeed being favored, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed and quickly canceled the company's contract. (In its eagerness to do business here, the company had given the city a quick cancellation clause.)

Hartford, where at one point EAI was scheduled to take over all 32 schools, followed a somewhat different plot, but the AFT represented teachers in Connecticut's capital, too, as it does in Philadelphia, where the Philadelphia Federation is not a shrinking violet.

What happened to EAI? Last I saw, it had changed its name, had lost its stock exchange listing and reportedly couldn't afford to mail report cards to parents at one of the private schools it managed. It was scrambling for some of the business in the burgeoning charter school movement.

The same could happen to Edison, which thus far has deep pockets and patient investors. I hope Edison doesn't go under. It has an even more exciting program than EAI did, and the principle of school privatization is sound. If we object to companies making a profit in public education, then we have to throw out Houghton Mifflin, Crayola and Laidlaw school buses.

Talented would-be teachers languish in the pipeline

There are major blockages in the teacher pipeline. One of them is underscored in an e-mail message forwarded to me last week. It's from an Anne Arundel woman who says she has a master's degree in political science, 10 years of teaching at the community college level and a perfect grade-point average in six courses at the College of Notre Dame.

Yet this would-be teacher can't get a public school job because she has not completed student teaching.

"I will never be hired," she writes. "My employer is not going to give me a leave of absence and the bank will not allow me to skip several mortgage payments while I not get paid to student teach. ...

"This is a problem with education. Parris Glendening cannot teach high school social studies in Maryland, [scientist] Robert Gallo cannot teach high school science and Cal Ripken can't teach physical education. There is an untapped pool of adjunct faculty at the community college level that is being ignored."

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