When the Philadelphia School District was struggling several
years ago, one of the lifelines tossed to it was thrown by Edison
Schools, Inc., a New York-based for-profit offering a can-do
approach to public education.
Since then, the nation's largest educational management company
has had troubles of its own, ranging from failure to perform
successfully in a number of the public schools it was serving to a
virtual collapse in the value of its stock.
But if privatizing school management has not proven to be the
panacea many in Philadelphia had hoped, neither has Edison been the
district's undoing, as activists and others warned when the firm was
brought in during the rancorous and bitter state takeover of the
district in 2002. On the contrary, test scores are up district-
wide, and some of the most impressive gains have come in 20 of the
toughest schools, those turned over to Edison in a last-ditch effort
to jump-start them into performing.
"They've done a superb job with the most difficult schools," said
James Nevels, chairman of the state-appointed School Reform
Commission, which took over after the school board was disbanded.
Many thought the company itself wouldn't last. Stock prices had
plummeted by 2003, some districts canceled their contracts, and the
company went private that spring. But Edison spokesman Adam Tucker
says the company's slide has been reversed and it enjoyed its first
operating profit in its 12-year history at the end of last year.
The district, says chairman Nevels, has seen no evidence of
financial troubles, but is free to terminate the contract "at will."
Not everyone has been converted. Barbara Goodman, spokeswoman for
the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which fought the
partnership, and whose members now staff the Edison schools, credits
the district workforce with the gains in performance, and says the
PFT favors uniform administration. Lois Yampolsky, a community
activist who also fought privatization, still believes profitmaking
Edison shouldn't be there, rejecting the company's argument that in
public schools everything from transportation to textbooks comes
from the private sector - and that there's no reason management
shouldn't as well.
In the Philadelphia district, the company is the largest player
in a network of independent management partners that includes
universities and colleges as well as other private companies. Such
outsourcing exists to various degrees in Chicago, New York, and
other large cities, and is a development applauded by some experts.
"Centralized control is not working in American urban education,"
says Paul Peterson, professor of government at Harvard University.
One way to find out what does work, he insists, is to explore a
range of options in a Philadelphia-like mix.
Before the state takeover, the school district, with 200,000
students and 276 schools, seemed badly in need of new solutions. The
Reform Commission, which hired CEO Paul Vallas, formerly head of
Chicago schools and credited with positive reforms in that district,
selected Philadelphia's 45 worst-performing schools and divvied them
up for intensive care. …