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Private Control Has Yet To Show Improved Test Scores, Report Finds

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Private management of public schools has often led to cleaner buildings, greater access to computers, and more individualized instruction. But it has it yet to show academic improvement anywhere, according to a report released last week by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

At the request of two U.S. senators, the congressional watchdog agency examined four private-management efforts from the last five years: the experiences of Public Strategies Group Inc. in Minneapolis and of Education Alternatives Inc. in Baltimore; Dade County, Fla.; and Hartford, Conn.

The GAO did not look at newer efforts such as the Edison Project, which began managing four public schools this year, or Alternative Public Schools Inc., which is managing an elementary school in Wilkinsburg, Pa.

The 75-page report contains little that would surprise people who have followed the debate over private management.

The report notes that Minneapolis-based EAI has seen its five-year contract to operate one elementary school in Dade County conclude without being renewed, while its larger efforts in Baltimore and Hartford ended ahead of schedule amid bitter disputes over finances.

Public Strategies is in the final year of a three-year contract to provide management services to the Minneapolis district. The report says Public Strategies, which is based in Minneapolis, was paid 66 percent of the potential $716,500 it could have received under its performance-based contract last year. Money was withheld because, among other reasons, student test scores did not improve.

"Contract services yielded some benefits for students in all four districts," the report says. "Private management companies have served as catalysts for districts' rethinking of the status quo."

But test scores did not improve in privately managed schools in Dade, Baltimore, or Minneapolis. Hartford's scores were not evaluated.

'High Expectations'

The GAO conducted its own analysis of test scores in Baltimore, and found no improvement in reading and math scores at EAI-run schools compared with matched district-run schools. The agency says its analysis was consistent with a separate evaluation by the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

In a written response to the GAO report, Education Alternatives' president, Philip E. Geiger, said private-management efforts face high expectations to succeed within one to three years.

"As the success of these public-private partnerships are evaluated, one must recognize that there are good people trying to do a job while union operatives [are] 'circling the wagons' in hope of maintaining the status quo," he wrote.

Laurie Ohmann, a vice president of Public Strategies, said the GAO report was "quite limited" in its analysis.

"The really interesting question is not public versus private management, but what strategies" will lead to greater accountability throughout a school district, she wrote.

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