Privatization Backers Prevail in Hartford

By Peter Schmidt & Drew Lindsay — November 15, 1995 5 min read

Candidates who supported hotly contested school-privatization ventures in Hartford, Conn., and Wilkinsburg, Pa., retained control of the school boards of both cities in last week’s elections.

Pro-privatization incumbents were easily re-elected in Wilkinsburg, but the results in Hartford eroded the majority held by supporters of that district’s school-management contract with Education Alternatives Inc. to just 5-4.

And in Manchester, N.H., a long-shot referendum that would have required the city to privatize its schools was decisively rejected. Nearly three out of four voters opposed the idea.

Advocates on both sides of the ongoing debate over the private management of public schools drew encouragement from the Nov. 7 election results.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, welcomed the gains made by critics of Hartford’s contract with EAI. He interpreted the fact many voters continue to favor privatization as a reflection of their frustration with public education, rather than an endorsement of privatization itself.

“The majority in most of these places would like it if the public schools could shape themselves up without private help,” Mr. Shanker said.

Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, agreed. “The companies have tapped into public discontent about the public schools,” she said. “I think we have a homework assignment, and that is to build stronger ties with parents and communities.”

Backers of privatization said the votes in Hartford and Wilkinsburg showed continuing, if not overwhelming, support for the concept.

Ted G. Kolderie, a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies in Minneapolis and an expert on school privatization, said last week’s results in districts that have signed contracts with management companies showed that “it is possible to do it and survive.”

“Clearly, the privatization movement is rolling forward,” agreed Denis P. Doyle, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “But I don’t expect it to be a smooth and linear process.”

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, said the results in Wilkinsburg and Hartford represented victories by local parents over outside pressure from teachers’ unions.

“I think they were a boost for people exercising local control and finding innovative ways to improve education,” said Ms. Allen, whose Washington-based clearinghouse on state education reforms promotes approaches such as privatization and vouchers.

Helped by Popular Mayor

In Hartford, three backers and two foes of the contract with Minneapolis-based EAI emerged on top as 10 candidates vied for five open board seats. The results left the contract’s supporters, who had held seven seats on the nine-member board, with just five seats.

“I think the split is going to have a negative kind of impact,” said Thelma E. Dickerson, the school board’s president, who narrowly won her bid for re-election as part of a four-member slate that backed the contract. “If the people who have pledged to try to work for reform are going to continue that way, it is going to be difficult.”

Although the price of EAI’s stock rose in the wake of the election results, critics continue to question the company’s longer-range prospects. (See related story.)

One of the EAI opponents who won a seat on the board was a candidate from a slate organized by the Hartford Federation of Teachers. The other was a member of a separate slate called the Hartford Issues Committee. Each group raised about $40,000 during the election, and they joined forces after last month’s primary.

The slate of candidates that supported the EAI contract said it raised only about $10,000 during the campaign. The pro-EAI slate, however, enjoyed strong support from Democratic Mayor Michael M. Peters, who easily defeated an independent challenger.

Big Win in Pa.

In the Pittsburgh suburb of Wilkinsburg, four incumbent school board candidates who backed the district’s privatization effort easily topped the eight-candidate field to retain their seats.

Unofficial results showed that they collected nearly 10,000 of the 17,500 votes, guaranteeing that at least seven of the board’s nine members support the district’s decision to hire a Nashville company to run a troubled elementary school there.

The victories at the polls came weeks after a key legal victory for the 1,900-student district. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month lifted a preliminary injunction to stop the contract with Alternative Public Schools Inc.

That ruling damaged the argument by anti-privatization candidates that the contract violated state law, board supporters said.

“When you stand back and look at those two events,” said William R. DeLoache Jr., the chairman of aps, “each one went about as well as we could hope.”

Wilkinsburg has fired teachers as part of its private-management effort at Turner Elementary School--a move that brought nea President Keith B. Geiger to town earlier this year to protest the plan.

The state high court’s decision does not end the legal challenge to the contract, and the nea’s state affiliate, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, plans to continue a media campaign in Wilkinsburg against the contract.

“That’s not going to end with the elections,” said Butch Santicola, a spokesman for the state union. “Our campaign is going to continue.”

Late last week, Lenora Olday, one of the candidates defeated in the election, said a group of residents opposed to the privatization effort may file a lawsuit challenging the election results.

Fighting the Odds

In Manchester, N.H., a bid to force the city to privatize its schools was soundly defeated.

More than 14,200 voters rejected a proposal to order city officials to hire a for-profit company to run the schools. Only about 5,200 approved the move.

A handful of city residents had gathered about 5,000 signatures last year to put the initiative on the ballot. The group had little financial backing and gave itself little chance of winning.

Still, nea officials had watched the campaign closely. If the measure had passed, Manchester would have joined Hartford as the second district in the country to privatize all its school operations.

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 1995 edition of Education Week as Privatization Backers Prevail in Hartford