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 conflict has left observers on both sides uncertain whether
Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker's proposal is a bold stroke or a
"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
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 community groups - a
situation that would, in effect, mean that the private company could
be reporting to itself with respect to these schools. …