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'A Very Different Kind of School'

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Contrary to the dreary prognoses for America's children that fill our nation's press, we at the Edison Project see something far more promising going on in communities across the country. Concerned parents, civic leaders, and educators are actively seeking to change their schools in profound and exciting ways--and are increasingly turning to the private sector for assistance.

It has taken a while for awareness of the need for fundamental change to take root--11 years have gone by since A Nation at Risk described the dire situation in our nation's schools--but hundreds of districts are looking for and finding help. Lots of people realize that our schools need fresh thinking and new ideas, and that they need those things now.

The Edison Project and other groups in the emerging public-private education arena offer many innovative solutions to the various problems and opportunities that face our schools. At a time when endeavors large and small--even our own federal government--are being "reinvented," private providers can offer alternative programs that are designed to help all children.

Four powerful forces have taken root to propel this trend. First, break the mold of conventional K-12 education and reinvent the concept of "schooling." Second, allow districts to diversify their offerings, then let parents choose from among them. Third, regulate results rather than procedures and give schools the freedom and power to achieve them. And, fourth, unshackle the creative energy of the private sector to help public institutions, including public schools, do a better job of reaching their goals.

We are far from alone in our analysis that schools need to be "reinvented." In a recent study conducted by the researcher Paul T. Hill of the Program on Reinventing Public Education, he concludes that the vast majority of schools can and should make much better use of the resources available to them. Though he agrees that many schools need new equipment, buildings, and so forth, he cites ample evidence to prove that most schools are "buffeted by decisions made in the political arena, distracted from their instructional and nurturing missions by conflicts among adults, and hamstrung by regulations enacted in efforts to improve them."

The Edison Project and other like-minded enterprises offer school districts several distinct advantages to aid them in their reform efforts--a fully conceived alternative vision of a very different kind of school; millions of dollars in research and development as well as in direct investment in technology, professional development, and facilities upgrades; accountability for results; expanded choice for parents; the benefits of competition; and help in breaking the bureaucratic logjam that hampers real reform.

A few of the advantages that public-private partnerships can provide include:

  • A New Vision. School boards, administrators, parents, and teachers clamor for reform, but most reform efforts have addressed only a small portion of what constitutes schooling. Few offer a coherent philosophy and a complete vision, ranging from curriculum to staff development to technology to parent involvement. The Edison Project is one of a small number of programs that attempts to weave together all the disparate strands of the endeavor that we think of as school into something new and exciting.
  • Investment. The Edison Project has invested millions of dollars in developing our school design, curriculum, and school organization. In addition to that research, we bring millions more to a school via direct investment in professional development and technology.
  • Accountability. If a business is poorly managed, it goes bankrupt. If a church doesn't attend to the needs of its members, they leave. If a hospital is poorly managed, patients go elsewhere.

Yet, when a public school fails, there is too often no real consequence. Until this fundamental unresponsiveness is addressed, the ambitious agendas we as a nation set for our children will fail. When a school district chooses to enter into a partnership with a private provider, clear performance expectations should be included as part of the arrangement and, if they are not met, the provider should be tossed out.

Accountability energizes the entire culture of a school. The Edison Project seeks five-year relationships with school districts, and we will spell out the results expected of us and the benchmarks and timetables by which progress will be monitored.

  • Competition. Preliminary evidence indicates that the advantages of competition, spurred by public-private partnerships, are already being felt. In Wichita, Kan., where the school board recently voted unanimously to entrust three of its schools to a partnership with the Edison Project, one board member said the endeavor has already "fostered some positive, healthy competition" with other schools in the system. In Baltimore, observers say the establishment of nine partnership schools with Education Alternatives Inc. has helped launch community soul-searching about what's needed to make all of Baltimore's schools effective places for children. And Sylvan Learning System's success in providing additional learning opportunities for disadvantaged children is spurring wholesale re-examinations of how school districts should best spend their Chapter 1 funds. These efforts, far from posing a threat to the public education system, will prompt public schools to improve.
  • Breaking the Logjam. It is no longer tenable to argue that the morass of regulations that burden our public schools is helping us achieve our nation's educational goals. In a great many cases, efforts such as the Edison Project are helping jump-start long-overdue reconsiderations of the regulations that govern our schools.

Rather than design our program with any particular state's rules in mind, we created a design from the inside out--with the students, teachers, and parents at the center--rather than from the outside in, the way bureaucratic systems require.

Surveys of public opinion show that the public demands, quite reasonably, that their schools meet the triple standards of public institutions--that they be open to all, nondiscriminatory, and nonsectarian. No proposal I've seen or heard offered by a private company purports to violate any of these three standards.

Re-examination of the variety and quality of public school programs is now a requirement, not an option, for a superintendent. We at the Edison Project have created a school design that embodies many of the aspects that parents want, yet we are fully aware that our program won't be right for all children and their families. But we know that, when given a choice, many parents will find our model--and others that are very different--appealing.

School districts should diligently examine what we offer, and there are important public-policy questions to consider, but some of the arguments used to derail public-private partnerships are misguided, or dishonest.

One argument we hear often is that a company or companies shouldn't be allowed to make a profit from public education.

The easiest retort to that charge is that all public school systems already utilize private providers, usually with good results. For example, private companies provide 57 percent of the facilities services for the Fairfax County, Va., schools. Almost half of the school administrators polled in a recent national survey said they thought their districts would increase the use of contracted services over the next few years. And our conversations with hundreds of superintendents around the country tell us that many innovative ideas--ours included--will be given trials by fire.

Another argument that we often hear has it that, in some bad way, we will use children as "guinea pigs" in an experimental education program. This is entirely bogus. First, we insist that no youngsters attend an Edison partnership school against the wishes of their parents or guardians.

Second, look at the elements of what we at the Edison Project offer a school district: a longer school day and year; longer teacher-student relationships; an emphasis on democratic values and hard work. Do these sound experimental? Most partnership programs, since they represent dramatic breaks from traditional public schools, are scrutinized carefully while being subject to much broader accountability measures than other schools in a district.

Another charge that has been leveled against administrators considering public-private partnerships is that private providers want to "skim" the best, most motivated students and leave the rest for the public schools. So far, the evidence indicates exactly the opposite is occurring--districts want private partners to assist with students who aren't responding well to traditional approaches.

In Portsmouth, Va., the superintendent issued a bid to solicit proposals from public and private groups to help raise the performance of schools that are underachieving. Franklin Smith, the superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools, says that, despite resistance to the concept orchestrated by intractable opponents, he will propose again next year that a private company manage up to a dozen poorly performing schools. And the townspeople of Wilkinsburg, Pa., recently said they want to contract with a group--public or private--to raise the performance of children in an underperforming school there.

We at the Edison Project have now heard from thousands of concerned educators and parents, and we've come to some pretty clear conclusions. People are tired of the same old arguments as to why schools can't change. They want alternatives, and private providers can help deliver those alternatives. Competition, freedom of opportunity, and a diversity of choices serve the causes of progress and human dignity. These enduring principles, brought to life in vibrant schools, offer the best chance for American parents seeking a better life and a prosperous future for their children.

See the next article in this special report,

Doug Jamerson, June 22, 1994.

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