Contention Over Privatization: Will it Help or Hurt the Schools?.
by Garland L. Thompson
It was billed as a discussion of "The Pros and Cons of Contracting the Running of Inner City Schools: Can Parents and Students Be Better Served by This Innovation?" What many members in the audience came for was an opportunity to beat up on Baltimore (MD) School Superintendent Walter Amprey.
Amprey generated national headlines when he signed a five-year contract with Minneapolis, MN, based Education Alternatives, a for-profit company, to take over 12 Baltimore City schools in July 1992, and career public educators in the audience were visibly angry about it. Amprey and Deborah McGriff, former superintendent of Detroit schools and now senior vice president of the Edison Project's Public School Partnership in New York City, spoke in support of such privatization efforts on a panel which also included Edith Patterson, president of the Charles County, MD, School Board and Charlie Mae Knight, superintendent of schools in Ravenwood, CA, both of whom opposed privatization efforts.
Wilbert J. LeMelle, president of the New York-based Phelps-Stokes Fund and a member and former chairman of the National Citizens Commission on African American Education, moderated the discussion.
Amprey, who left early due to prior commitments, began with a disclaimer: Don't consider him a proponent of privatization all over the country. He just wants to figure out what can work to bring about improvements in Baltimore, where he is "ruthlessly determined to change the culture" of public education.
"The clock has run out," Amprey said, "and our bag of tricks is empty. Many of the things we've tried in the past have not worked," and privatization in a small number of city schools "is only one of many things we are involved in." Amprey said he began the privatization effort to "bring the standardization and efficiency" of corporate practices to the schools. Already, he said, Education Alternatives had shown his administrators new ways to handle financial issues.
"We have to get rid of policies and procedures that have led to educational gridlock," Amprey said. "I believe we have become the victims of our own thought processes. But we must recognize that we are out of tricks. We must get past the adult issues that have characterized the discussion of privatization." It is not, Amprey said, "some company coming in and firing teachers. It is not new. It is not simply some company making a profit. It is simply an attempt to bring in the standardization of private enterprise to end the gridlock of policies and procedures" that "well-meaning people" have kept in place over the years.
An Assumption of Incompetence?
Knight, president-elect of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, said she spoke only for herself, but registered strong dissent.
"My ego is not large, but I do feel I am a good administrator," she said. Taking issue with the "assumption" that privatization can do something better, she went to the heart of many public-school leaders' concern: If privatization comes in, they might not need me.
Calling the California schools "a battleground," Knight said, "We could do better as educators if we are not afraid to take positions -- if we are not afraid to say to teachers 'your product is not good.'"
"We started out with privatization when we delegated management of the cafeterias," Knight said, but she asked why it could not be documented that schools receive more funds from cafeteria operations than before privatization. …