The speaker is pumping up the crowd that's gathered in front of Philadelphia's City Hall. "They are a slew of vultures who see dollar signs and not our children!" she shouts, as her listeners roar with approval. "Who gave them the idea that they know how to educate us?" Fists punctuate the air, banners gyrate, drums pound, and the crowd roars again.
The protest late last week by several hundred students, parents, teachers, and union members was just the latest in a testy exchange over what could become the nation's largest experiment with privatizing public education. And for many of its opponents, the proposal is soured by a further blow: aggressive state marketing of the initiative.
The conflict has left observers on both sides uncertain whether Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker's proposal is a bold stroke or a naive blunder.
"Nobody's ever really contemplated having a private company at the helm of a major public school system," says Rick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In terms of success or failure, he says, "This thing could cut either way."
Officials at New York-based Edison Schools Inc. - the private management company most likely to be brought in to manage the Philadelphia schools - say their track record should be reassuring. Of the 65 contracts Edison has entered into with public school districts, 62 are still intact. "I understand [the protestors'] concerns; I understand their commitment to Philadelphia, but we at Edison know, we absolutely know, we can create the kind of district everyone wants," says spokesman Adam Tucker.
Schools in dire need of reform
The one point on which all sides agree is that the 210,000- student school system - the eighth largest in the United States - is in serious trouble.
About 57 percent of Philadelphia students have inadequate math and reading skills, and 70 percent live at or below the poverty level. Dropout rates hover around 50 percent, 65,000 suspensions are handed out annually, and the city's high schools have a daily absentee rate of about 25 percent.
Past efforts at reform have done little to move the system beyond its entrenched problems. A reform-minded superintendent brought in during the 1990s failed to turn the tide, as did large sums of money poured into Philadelphia schools by the Annenberg Foundation.
In addition, the school system's deficit is now projected to balloon to $1.5 billion by 2006.
The state's response was to spend $2.7 million earlier this year to bring in the New York-based privately held Edison Schools Inc. to study the troubled system and make a proposal. Edison concluded that the primary obstacle to success was ineffective bureaucracy.
If Edison itself were allowed to manage the schools, the report went on to suggest, it would be able to improve education and save money at the same time.
Although Edison has yet to be officially named as the company to be hired, its proposal is the one the state is embracing. Unless a different agreement can be reached with the city by Nov. 30, says Governor Schweiker, Pennsylvania will take over Philadelphia's public schools.
Management of the schools would shift from the city's school board to a five-member School Reform Commission, with four appointed by the state and one by the city. The 55 top managers running the city schools would be replaced by the private company.
In addition, according to the governor's plan, the city's 264 schools would be divided into three groups. The top 30 or 40 - judged to be performing satisfactorily - would be left alone. The middle 170 would benefit from extra funding for textbooks, school maintenance, and professional development.
The worst-performing 60 would be turned over to the private company, in collaboration with various …