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Perspectives on Private Management of Public Schools

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Few issues in education today seem at once so appealing and so frightening as the notion of a local school district hiring a private company to come in and run its schools.

Appealing to anyone who has ever sat through a lengthy school board meeting and wondered why nothing ever seemed to get done. Appealing to anyone who has been mired in the bureaucracy associated with the education of their children, or watched test scores fall while teacher salaries and school taxes increased.

Frightening to parents whose children have been the victims of other educational experiments that promised to revolutionize schooling, only to sputter and die. Frightening to educators who foresee cost-cutting and profits replacing learning and student achievement as the driving forces within their schools. And frightening to teachers' unions, who envision for-profit ventures eroding the collective-bargaining gains for which they've fought so hard.

Such strong emotions, inevitably, have led to controversy. In recent months, proposals by private companies to manage public schools in districts around the country have become political dynamite.

Educators and policymakers nationwide watched as a plan by the superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools to allow private management of some schools went down in flames. The ongoing management of nine Baltimore schools by Education Alternatives Inc. has sparked bitter opposition from teachers' unions.

Indeed, the topic has become so politically charged that superintendents of several of the largest school districts in the country declined to submit commentaries on the subject for this special section.

Advocates of privatization ventures see in them the combined virtues of government and business. They argue that government's oversight function and its responsiveness to the needs of citizens can be retained while exploiting business' ability to cut through bureaucracy, reduce costs, and maximize achievement. These advocates say they're willing to try anything that holds the promise of fixing broken schools, and believe that stringent agreements with the management companies can hold them accountable for improved school performance.

Opponents, however, worry that the concerns of parents and students--particularly those of youngsters with special needs--will play second fiddle to those of corporate shareholders. They worry that school districts won't be vigilant enough in monitoring the companies' performance, and they see little assurance that a private company will succeed where public administrators and professional educators have not. After all, they note, private managers can be as inefficient or as incompetent as public ones.

Both of those viewpoints are being heard across the country as companies such as the Edison Project and Education Alternatives Inc. make their proposals to local school districts. School officials in those districts face difficult questions with few real answers.

In the first of six essays in this special Education Week Commentary report, the president of the school board in one such district, Milwaukee, explains the reasoning that has led officials there to consider management proposals by private companies and the concerns that might rule out such a course.

In subsequent essays, officials from the Edison project and E.A.I. make their cases, explaining the philosophical argument in favor of private-public partnerships and the specifics of how such efforts can both turn a profit and insure quality education.

At the other end of the spectrum, the president of the American Federation of Teachers bases his opposition to privatization on the experience in the Baltimore public schools--warning against untested programs and a lack of aggressiveness by public officials in holding private companies accountable.

The Commissioner of Education for the state of Florida explores the role and concerns privatization raises at the state level, and a Minneapolis lawyer explains legal and bureaucratic hurdles such efforts must clear if they are to succeed.

See the next article in this special report,

Albert Shanker, June 22, 1994.

This special Commentary report, the second in a series examining crucial issues in education, is being underwritten by a grant from the Philip Morris Companies Inc.

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