Keep Public Schools Public

Transferring Philadelphia's schools to a for-profit company diminishes accountability

Although the Philadelphia school system has a bleak record for academic performance, a state panel’s decision to transfer control of 42 public schools to private organizations is the wrong remedy and threatens the mission of public education. The plan, approved last week by a bitterly divided Pennsylvania School Reform Commission, places 20 formerly-public schools under the power of the for-profit corporation Edison Schools Inc., five under the control of Temple University, three under the University of Pennsylvania and the remainder under four lesser-known organizations. These firms will exercise full control of school budgets and will likely have unchecked power in hiring and firing decisions.

Given the current plight of Philadelphia’s public schools, there is no question that sweeping change is needed. Standardized test scores reveal that half of the system’s students cannot meet minimal requirements in reading and mathematics, and debt continues to mount as school facilities fall into even greater disrepair. But despite the state’s well-intentioned push for immediate and bold action, its decision to outsource the operation of its schools will inevitably diminish the community’s voice in shaping its children’s education.

Throughout most of the country, public schools are run by school boards that are either directly elected or appointed by elected officials. This arrangement fosters accountability in school leadership, because communities can use the ballot to translate their dissatisfaction into change. After privatization, however, residents will have no direct power over day-to-day decisions in schools. Budget allocations, curriculum choices and administrative hirings are just a few examples of decisions that will now be left to private firms and universities. Although board members can still exert some pressure on private managers by threatening to vote against their contracts when they come up for renewal, this arrangement inevitably adds a layer between the voter and the decision that is made.

Introducing profit-motive into public education by transferring control to corporations like Edison Schools, Inc. threatens to further dilute community power. Decisions by such companies must weigh community input against not only educational goals and budget constraints—as school boards, nonprofit firms and universities would—but also against the impact on its own bottom line. Sometimes that interest runs counter to the quality of education students receive. For example, more costly programs like performing arts do not produce the kind of higher test schools that help for-profit firms sell their product to other districts and to shareholders. Special educational programs in music do not yield the kind of quantitative results a company can easily pitch.

Philadelphia and the state can take aggressive action toward addressing the distressing plight of its schools without surrendering control of its schools to private firms. They can capitalize on the strengths of private managers—their ability to inject new ideas and to analyze problems from a perspective of external experience—without marginalizing community voices. The state commission should enlist several private firms and professors to present varied and broad-based recommendations while leaving the decision to act on those recommendations in their hands of elected officials. By pitting these proposals against one another, Philadelphia can reap the same benefits that would come from outsourcing its actual operations while empowering the community to take part in reinvigorating local schools.

The benefits claimed by Edison and other private managers in terms of academic achievement and efficiency are uncertain at best. What is certain is that by transferring decision-making power into private hands, parents will lose influence over their children’s education. Philadelphia schools are in a terrible state, but privatization is the wrong way to deliver the kind quality education its students deserve.

Dissent: Condemning Children to Illiteracy

If insanity is repeating an action and expecting a different result each time, the Staff has gone off its rocker. By maintaining the status quo in Philadelphia—which is exactly what hired education consultants do—the Staff would condemn thousands of children to illiteracy and poverty.

The Staff levels many accurate criticisms against Edison Schools, Inc. However, contracting Edison to run the district does not surrender democratic control; rather it puts control of the schools in the hands of those who care more for the children than their own jobs. Indeed, hiring Edison to run the schools will be even more democratic—and effective—than the present system. The terms of the contract will be decided in a debate, a one-time deliberative format likely to produce a decision with which a majority of parents participate and agree. Gone will be the inefficiency created by the continual politicking of elected school boards. Democratic city governments do business with for-profit companies regularly, and Edison will be no exception to the high standards cities demand.

Ideally, popularly elected public school officials would demonstrate the creativity, resourcefulness and resolve to improve Philadelphia schools. Time has shown that they are unable to do so; in the vacuum of ideas left in public officials’ wake, we welcome a chance to offer better education to all. We wish the Staff cared more about children than the details of school administration.

—Duncan M. Currie ’04,

Jonathan H. Esensten ’04 and Paul C. Shultz ’03