Success rare after takeover of districts

Nationwide, mayors' efforts have led to more improvement


City Schools Takeover


These questions loomed over the debate about the city school takeover yesterday: Will it work? Can the state improve learning at 11 Baltimore schools by giving them to independent operators?

Few states have tried such an experiment, but where it has been tried there is no clear record of success.

The best example may be in Philadelphia, where all middle schools improved over the past three years, whether run by the city or others.

In Baltimore, the state has claimed success at the three elementaries run by the company Edison Schools, but not everyone agrees with that judgment.

Across the nation, educational researchers say, state takeovers of school districts have rarely worked to improve school achievement even a decade later. Attempts by mayors have been more successful.

In Philadelphia, where a group of middle schools were turned over to nonprofits, universities and for-profit companies, there was not a significant difference in the results after three years, according to Douglas J. Mac Iver, a principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Social Organization of Schools. Mac Iver and his wife, Martha, worked together on a report funded by the National Science Foundation that studied the Philadelphia effort.

"So far, the privatization experiment, which has cost a lot of [money] and cost a lot of disruption, has not paid off by producing consistently better ... achievement gains," Mac Iver said.

Philadelphia gave 14 middle schools to Edison and 12 schools to universities or for-profit companies. Twenty-six schools stayed under the control of the school system. But those city schools were given new curriculums and more support, and teachers were better trained.

Mac Iver followed the progress of all students as they made their way through three years of middle school. In the end, he said, the Edison schools did about as well as the city-run schools. But the schools in the group that were given to other operators performed worse.

Baltimore has been experimenting with privatizing some of its public schools since the early 1990s. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke halted the city's first attempt at school privatization amid evidence that student performance had fallen at a dozen schools run by a for-profit Minneapolis company.

Since then, charter schools have opened, private universities and nonprofits have started high schools, and the state turned over three elementaries in 2000 to Edison Schools, one of the nation's largest for-profit education companies.

The three Edison schools have improved significantly but so have four of seven city schools that were on the list of failing schools at the time of the state takeover, according to a report funded by the Abell Foundation and written by William S. Ratchford, the former director of fiscal services for the General Assembly.

And three of those schools had better scores than the Edison schools.

The Abell report also says that special education and administration costs in Edison schools have far exceeded those at other city schools. That is an issue for the school system, the report argues, because the city school system must pay for the Edison contract.

"The implications of a financial drain on the city schools is also very troubling if the state does what it did with Edison," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, a local group that has funded many educational projects in Baltimore.

The city school system is trying to see whether it can improve high schools by allowing colleges, universities and nonprofit groups to start small schools. Six have opened in the past several years, but it is too early in the process to know whether they will be successful.

As for the state's plan for Baltimore, "the challenge is the implementation," said Kenneth Wong, a Brown University professor who has studied state takeovers. He said success would be determined in part by whether state officials can come up with a list of groups and companies that want to take over schools.

While there may be several companies, such as Victory Schools and Edison, that have had success with elementary schools, Wong said, the middle and high school success rate is lower.

"A lot of service providers are good at elementary but not at the middle and high schools," he said.

Edison runs 136 schools in more than two dozen states, most of them elementary schools like Baltimore's Montebello, Furman L. Templeton and Gilmor. Edison spokeswoman Laura Eshbaugh said yesterday that the company would look at the 11 targeted schools to determine whether it's interested in competing to run them.

Sun reporter JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

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