42 failing schools in Philadelphia to be privatized

Edison Schools, University of Pa., Temple take charge

April 21, 2002|By Jacques Steinberg | Jacques Steinberg,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PHILADELPHIA - In what is believed to be the largest experiment in privatization ever mounted by an American school district, a state panel charged with improving the Philadelphia public school system has voted to transfer control of 42 failing city schools to seven outside managers, including Edison Schools Inc. and two universities.

The three members of the School Reform Commission appointed by Gov. Mark Schweiker voted to approve the plan, while the two members appointed by Mayor John F. Street voted against it.

Last week's vote capped a fiery three-hour meeting in which the two sides had split over whether Edison, the nation's largest for-profit operator of public schools, had the capacity and know-how to improve the 20 schools that it was assigned.

"I want this reform to succeed," Michael Masch, a vice president at the University of Pennsylvania who is one of the mayor's two appointees to the panel, said during the debate. "I am gravely concerned that the magnitude of the change being proposed is imprudent."

Moments later, James P. Gallagher, a president of Philadelphia University who is one of the governor's three appointees, said, "We should push the envelope and be as aggressive as possible."

A milestone

The panel's vote represents a milestone in the decade-long growth of the movement to turn troubled public schools over to private operators.

There is no better index of the impact of this effort than Edison's own expansion: Over the last six years, it has gone from operating a handful of public schools to more than 130 in 22 states, with a combined student population that is larger than all but a few dozen urban districts.

All told, the Philadelphia panel, known as the School Reform Commission, voted to assign an outside manager to one of every six schools in the city.

In addition to Edison, the other organizations involved include two colleges that are in Philadelphia: Temple University, which was assigned five schools, and the University of Pennsylvania, which received three schools.

The panel also tapped four other companies with various degrees of school administrative experience, though each was smaller than Edison. They are Chancellor Beacon Academies Inc., a for-profit company based in Florida that operates public and private schools (assigned five schools); Foundations Inc., a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia that offers a after-school programs (four schools); Victory Schools Inc., a New York-based company that opened the state's first charter school (three schools); and Universal Companies, a new venture begun by the record producer Kenny Gamble (two schools).

How much responsibility those managers would be given in the schools that they have been assigned remains to be negotiated with the state panel, as well as with the teachers' union and the parents in those schools.

But panel officials said that, in many instances, the outsiders would likely make sweeping changes in school curriculum, as well as seek to replace school administrators and many of the teachers.

Teachers not consulted

After the Wednesday evening meeting, Jerry Jordan, a vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he regretted that the panel had said so little about how the schools would be redesigned by the outsiders.

"They didn't spell anything out," Jordan said. "It's like, `Let's see what works.' It shows a total lack of respect."

After the roll was called, several dozen student protesters, who have long argued that it was undemocratic for a for-profit company to operate a public school, chanted, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" and "I am not for sale!"

Beginning at daybreak, those same protesters had succeeded in shutting down the system's Art Deco administrative building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway by forming a barricade at the entrance. Neither police officers nor the building's 350 employees were willing to cross the line. As a result, the meeting, which had been scheduled for 1 p.m. at district headquarters, was delayed for two hours, then moved to the city's African American Museum, nearly a mile away.

The developments were the most significant here since late December, when Schweiker, a Republican, assumed control of city school system, which had previously been operated by a board of education appointed entirely by Street, a Democrat. At the time, Schweiker said that only a bold approach could save a system in which more than half of the nearly 200,000 students had failed to achieve minimum proficiency on state reading and math tests.

Governor's view

The governor had also made clear at the time that he wanted Edison to play a major role in Philadelphia. Though the 20 schools that the company was awarded was more than double the number it manages in any other district, the assignment was far more modest than the 60 Philadelphia schools that it said it was capable of managing.

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