Pa. Governor Drops Privatization Plan for Phila. Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — November 28, 2001 3 min read

Faced with intense and widespread opposition, Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker last week withdrew his plan to place the Philadelphia school system under private management, canceling what would have been the largest such privatization experiment in the country.

The move by the Republican governor, announced Nov. 20 after three hours of meetings with Democratic Mayor John Street, does not affect the looming Dec. 1 state takeover of the troubled district, but could transform that transfer of power from a hostile battle into a more cordial agreement.

“It would have been tragic if we had allowed a disagreement over one issue to keep us from moving forward,” Gov. Schweiker said in a statement.

“The mayor is pleased that [privatization of district operations] is off the table and we can go on to the next step,” said Mr. Street’s secretary of education, Debra Kahn. “He appreciates that the governor recognizes this is a necessary step to take. And we know the work is just beginning.”

Gov. Schweiker agreed to remove from his school management plan the factor that had become a deal-breaker for Mayor Street: hiring a private company—most likely Edison Schools Inc.—to run the 210,000-student district. Mr. Street had refused to talk to the governor about the plan as long as that provision was a part of it.

The two men emerged from discussions last week with an agreement that Edison would not manage the district, but would instead work under contract as a consultant. The for- profit New York City-based company would play a “significant and vital role” in providing “comprehensive strategic and operational support,” Mr. Schweiker said.

The governor’s plan to allow Edison to replace the district’s top 55 managers was also withdrawn. The governor assured Mr. Street that those jobs would stay in the hands of public employees working for the district’s chief executive officer. The CEO would in turn report to a new School Reform Commission, to be appointed by the governor and the mayor to run the district.

Other aspects of the governor’s plan remain intact, including bringing in private management, in partnership with community organizations, to run the city’s 60 worst-performing schools.

Cautious Optimism

Privatization opponents greeted the compromise as a good first step that clears the way toward negotiation of a complete plan to run the city’s schools.

“There is still a whole lot left to do,” said school board President Pedro Ramos. “But it’s very important that Edison’s role is going to be as a service provider and not Edison calling the shots. It puts the public back in public education.”

One school district source, who asked not to be identified, said the prevailing mood among district employees was one of encouragement, but added that upcoming negotiations still had much to smooth out. “The devil is in the details,” the source said.

Mr. Ramos said he and others still hoped the governor would agree to give the mayor one more appointment to the school reform commission. Under the governor’s current plan, he would appoint four members of the commission for staggered terms, ranging from three to seven years, and the mayor would appoint one.

Edison officials said they did not view the company’s revised role under the compromise as a step down. “We will be a key driver in helping the district turn around,” said Edison spokesman Adam Tucker. “That’s significant.”

Steve Aaron, the governor’s spokesman, said no dollar figure had yet been attached to Edison’s contract as a consultant to the district. Under Gov. Schweiker’s first proposal, the company would have been paid $40 million to run the district.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Pa. Governor Drops Privatization Plan for Phila. Schools