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Privatization Found To Fall Short of Billing

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Private management of public schools has so far failed to improve student performance, lower costs, or bring greater educational equity, a report by the Twentieth Century Fund concludes.

Hard Lessons: Public Schools and Privatization, written by three education and public-policy researchers from New York University, argues that experiments with privatization in public education have not lived up to the promises of their promoters.

"Despite the enthusiasm of its advocates, privatization has not proved itself a solution to low student achievement or declining school budgets," the book says. "Moreover, it has not improved accountability, widened parents' involvement, or increased equity."

The Twentieth Century Fund is a New York City-based research foundation started in 1919. It recently has begun issuing a series of reports on the privatization of public services. One of its reports last year examined privatization of public hospitals in New York.

The fund's latest report, issued late last month, examines such examples of privatization in education as Education Alternatives Inc.'s now-terminated contracts in Baltimore and Hartford, Conn.; Boston University's ongoing management of the Chelsea, Mass., school system; and the Chicago Corporate Community School, a business-supported private school that was folded into the public schools there in 1993.

It also examines some experiments with private delivery of services to public school students in the 1970s. But it gives little attention to fledgling efforts by the New York City-based Edison Project and Nashville-based Alternative Public Schools Inc. to operate individual public schools on a contract basis.

Supporters of private management of public schools criticized the report, saying last week that it was a predictable liberal critique that relies too heavily on early or limited data.

"I think it's a hatchet job, actually," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow in the Washington office of the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute and a founding partner of the Edison Project. "The Twentieth Century Fund engaged in this task people who they had every reason to believe would be hostile to the privatization of education," he said.

In a foreword to the report, the president of the fund, Richard C. Leone, calls the authors' study "comprehensive and balanced."

"Based on their research, any objective observer would come to the conclusion that privatization is, at a minimum, being oversold," Mr. Leone writes.

The report was written by Carol Ascher, a senior research associate at NYU's Institute for Education and Social Policy; Norm Fruchter, the director of the institute; and Robert Berne, the vice president for academic development at NYU and the former dean of its graduate school of public service.

"We kind of went into it with an open mind," Ms. Ascher said in an interview last week. But the conclusion the authors reached was that "privatization, particularly by for-profit companies, is just a disastrous approach," she said.

Early Experiments

The authors begin their review in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the federal government sponsored an educational experiment called "performance contracting."

The experiment began in Texarkana, Texas, where a private company won a contract in 1969 to provide remedial instruction in the district's schools. By the 1971-72 school year, more than 200 school districts had entered into performance contracts for remedial instruction, the study says.

Test results from the experiment were disappointing, however, and the contractor in Texarkana was found to be teaching close to the tests that were the basis for the company's evaluation.

As for more recent experiments with privatization, the authors observe that it is troubled urban districts that have been most willing to turn to private companies or other outsiders for new ideas.

The study recounts EAI's much-documented efforts in Baltimore and Hartford, which ended last academic year amid disputes over finances and academic results.

The authors include the partnership between the private Boston University and the Chelsea schools as another form of privatization. Student achievement has yet to show dramatic improvements in that 7-year-old partnership, and the university has added a layer of bureaucracy over the community's schools, the authors say.

All of the privatization efforts to date have tied student achievement to traditional measures of student progress, such as standardized tests, which limit their potential for educational innovation, the authors argue.

They conclude that privatization will remain marginal to the effort to vastly improve schools for the majority of public school students.

"Despite the myth of public education's intractability, the past decade has seen lively experimentation" with public school choice and alternative schools, they write. "The cancellations of EAI's contracts in Baltimore and Hartford, the brief life of the Chicago Corporate Community School, and the limitations of the other initiatives suggest that privatization is not the panacea its advocates claim. Its problems seem to outweigh its prospects."

Jury Is Out

Mr. Finn, a former assistant U.S. education secretary in the Reagan administration and a leading intellectual advocate of privatization, said the report's authors were too narrow in their thinking.

"Some people have a very traditional view of what a public school is and of what an educational reform is," he said. "Other than EAI, which is a story unto itself, most of the other examples they cite are too young to be evaluated. I sure think it is premature to declare them failures."

John C. Eason, the president of Alternative Public Schools, said the report focuses on privatization efforts involving whole takeovers of school districts. But APS, as well as the Edison Project, is focusing on the private management of individual schools within a district. APS is in the second year of running an elementary school in the Wilkinsburg, Pa., district.

"There are a number of ways for contract management to be played out," he said.

"The jury's still out. We've got to prove to a lot of people that this is a better way of governance," Mr. Eason added. "But I would definitely hesitate to proclaim contract management a failure."

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