Do Privately Managed Public Schools Make the Grade?

Experiments in Education Reform Move Ahead

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NEW YORK, MAR. 24, 2001 ( Reforming the education system in the United States is one of the new Bush administration´s key goals, but there is widespread debate over the best way to achieve this.

One possibility is to entrust more public schools to private enterprise. Voting is now under way in New York City over whether a private company, Edison Schools, should be allowed to take over the management of five problem schools, the New York Times reported March 22. About 5,000 parents are voting, while the proponents and opponents of the Edison plan are going door to door, looking for support.

Attention is focused on New York because the school system is the country´s largest, with 1.1 million students and 78,000 teachers and administrators. The move to entrust the schools to Edison is a victory for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, according to a Times article Dec. 22. Giuliani has pushed for privatization and has set aside $60 million of the Board of Education´s $11 billion budget for a private-management program.

The five schools in the program are three middle schools in Brooklyn, one elementary school in Manhattan and one school in the Bronx that has kindergartners through eighth-graders.

Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the former president of Yale University who is now chairman of Edison, said Edison had invested roughly $1.5 million in each of the 113 schools it manages around the country. Much of that spending is on technology, including home computers for each student beginning in the third grade. Those computers are typically distributed in the second year of Edison´s management of a school.

Edison has done a good job in reforming the San Francisco schools under its control, according to U.S. News and World Report magazine in its March 26 edition. For example, at one elementary school, taken over in mid-1998, «test scores have risen, and a sense of order and purpose marks the once chaotic hallways and classrooms of the Edison Charter Academy.»

The school board at this academy, however, now wants to revoke Edison´s charter. The issue does not seem related to academic issues, according to U.S. News and World Report. Jill Wynns, the school board president, says the problem is more fundamental, that of running a public school for profit. «I don´t believe it´s appropriate for people who make educational decisions to have a personal financial interest in them,» Wynns says.

Edison has grown rapidly since its founding by Chris Whittle in 1992. It opened its first four schools in 1995 and now contracts with school districts or chartering authorities to manage 113 schools with 57,000 students — mostly black and Hispanic children from low-income families — in 45 cities. Just a few days ago, in Nevada, a Las Vegas-area school board voted to turn over seven schools to the firm.

Opinion is divided over the academic results at schools run by Edison. Opponents point to a recent Western Michigan University study — commissioned by the National Education Association, the nation´s largest teachers union — that found gains in the first 10 Edison schools were comparable to those made in regular public schools in the same districts. But Jane Hannaway, director of education policy at the Urban Institute, is impressed by how well managed Edison schools are. She said Edison´s profit motive doesn´t bother her. «I´m a pragmatist,» she says. «Anything that helps poor kids do better, I´m for.»

Catholic schools more successful

In the debate over how to improve schools, reformers could well benefit by studying the Catholic example. A study comparing Catholic and public schools in New York City found that students achieve comparable results in lower grades, but by eighth grade the public school students lag behind considerably on state tests.

According to the New York Times, March 22, the study, released a day earlier, was sponsored by New York University and was conducted by a public school advocate teamed with a proponent of taxpayer support for private and Catholic schools in the form of vouchers. It found that in the eighth grade, half of all Catholic school students passed the state reading test, and 35% passed the math test. Among public school students, 42% passed the reading test and 23% passed the math test.

The report also found that Catholic schools were able to educate students with fewer resources. There is one teacher for every 21 students in the Catholic schools, compared with one teacher for every 16 students in the public system.

Catholic schools continue to expand, spurred by ever-increasing demand. The Washington Post reported March 20 on the situation in northern Virginia, where the demand for spots in Catholic schools far exceeds the supply.

Since 1990 the number of Catholics living in the Arlington Diocese, which covers northern Virginia, has grown 42%. During the same period, Catholic school enrollment in the area increased 49%. In the neighboring Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., Catholics grew by 16% in the 1990s, while the school population increased by a greater amount, 18%.

The debate over vouchers

Since the defeat of voucher proposals in state ballots last November in California and Michigan, proponents of vouchers have faced an uphill battle. The situation worsened in December when a federal appeals court ruled that a Cleveland, Ohio, voucher program was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment´s provision against the government´s establishment of religion.

At the time, Richard W. Garnett, assistant professor at the Notre Dame Law School, commented in the Dec. 14 edition of the Washington Times that the «decision is certainly misguided, and will almost as certainly be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.» Garnett noted that the appeals court´s ruling was at variance with the trend in recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. He also affirmed that providing school choice by means of vouchers «is not about funding religious schools, or promoting religious ´indoctrination.´ It is about equality, freedom and simple justice.»

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, the city of Milwaukee is proceeding with a voucher program, whereby low income parents can use public funds to send their children to 103 private schools that would otherwise be out of their financial reach, the Washington Post reported March 20.

The Post cast doubts on the academic benefits of the program, observing that voucher students are not required to take standardized tests and cannot be compared to their public school counterparts. The Post was also not happy that the schools are subject to minimal regulations, following the «sometimes flawed theory that parents are the best arbiters of education quality.»

In reply, the National Review Online on March 21 published an article critical of the Post´s attitude, noting that many parents «will be surprised to learn that they are ´flawed´ in believing that they are the best arbiters of the quality of their children´s education.»

The National Review also pointed out that voucher proponents don´t maintain that all private schools are necessarily of the same quality, but that they «simply want parents to have greater flexibility and choice in where they can send their kids to school — public or private.» That´s an argument many parents may find appealing.

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