Private Firms Tapped To Fix Md. Schools

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In a groundbreaking twist on states' efforts to turn around failing schools, Maryland education officials decided last week to seize control of three Baltimore elementary schools and turn them over to for-profit management later this year.

The vote by the state school board represents the first time Maryland officials have used their authority to take over troubled schools under a statewide "reconstitution" policy in place since 1994. Because it involves the takeover of individual schools rather than whole districts—as well as the hiring of private contractors to run them—the move also appears to be a national first in state education policy.

"No child should have to attend a failing school by accident of where he or she lives," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said at the Feb. 1 meeting in which the state board voted 10-2 for the takeovers. "The 1,500 children in these three schools are not having an opportunity to be competitive."

Nancy S. Grasmick

The takeovers are happening in a school system in which state officials already have unusually direct influence, thanks to a deal struck three years ago by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of Baltimore, and Ms. Grasmick. In an agreement that became law, the state traded additional education funds for seats on the local school board. ("Plan Tying Increased Aid, State Control of Baltimore Schools Backed," April 16, 1997.)

State board officials set the stage for the takeovers last year, when they began accepting proposals for third-party management of failing schools. They then identified three vendors who met the state's qualifications, one a nonprofit group that pulled out of the running late last week.

The two remaining prospective contractors are for-profit companies based in New York City: Edison Schools Inc., the nation's largest for-profit manager of public schools, and Mosaica Education Inc., a company that manages charter schools in three states.

The state board's decision to open the door to outside contractors—particularly private companies seeking a profit—had begun to draw fire last week.

"We're afraid these companies will come in and do their three-year stint and take the money and run," said Aaron A. Pinchback, a spokesman for the Baltimore Teachers' Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "We're not sure how the state can expect these companies to do any better than people who live and work here."

The prospective contractors must now submit specific proposals to run one or more of the targeted schools. The state board is expected to vote on those plans by month's end, with an eye toward turning the schools over to outside managers before the next school year begins.

"We really don't have much of a precedent for this at all," said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "We don't know of any other states, in terms of taking over schools, that have instituted into their policies the use of private contractors. There are some states that have taken over school districts, but that doesn't even happen very often."

Shake-up in Store

The planned takeovers are part of an intervention process Maryland calls reconstitution, a term that has often been used around the country to describe the wholesale replacement of a school's staff in an effort to transform its climate for learning. This sort of shakeup has been done in recent years by a handful of mostly big-city school systems, often despite stiff opposition from local teachers' unions.

In Maryland's version of reconstitution, a central feature is the state's decision to take control of a failing school away from the local district. But it also appears likely to result in substantial staff changes.

When the contractors take charge of the targeted Baltimore schools, they will be free of the collective-bargaining agreements covering other schools in the 107,000-student system. Teachers and other staff members wanting to stay will be expected to reapply for their jobs, state officials say. Those who aren't hired may be able to find jobs elsewhere in the system, but state officials say there are no guarantees.

Some observers are hoping the change will prove positive for Baltimore students. But others fear the state has made a misstep.

"What have we done in the previous three years to help these three schools to achieve before we got to the point of a takeover?" said Reginald L. Dunn, a new state board member from Prince George's County, Md., a suburban district outside Washington. "We're about to take a step that could lead us to charters, or who knows where."

Desperate Times

The Maryland board of education has been threatening to seize control of the state's lowest-performing schools since 1994. Its list of "reconstitution eligible" schools has grown to 96, with 12 in Prince George's County, one in Anne Arundel County, and 83 in the city of Baltimore. As many as 14 more could have joined them last week had the board not decided to impose a one-year moratorium on adding new schools.

But until now, the state has avoided using its takeover powers, opting instead for less invasive intervention strategies while preserving local control.

Greater scrutiny and assistance have produced some positive results, state officials say, but only one school has ever worked its way off the reconstitution list, leaving the rest still struggling with low test scores and poor attendance.

That record prompted some outside observers to suggest the state board may be justified in playing the takeover card.

"What do you do when you're desperate?" said Henry Levin, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. "Is this a reasonable direction to go? We really have not had enough experience with this kind of thing to know for sure, but if you're starting at the bottom, there's not an awful lot of risk involved."

Troubled Past

This will not be Baltimore's first experience with for-profit school management. City school officials turned over 12 of their schools in the mid-1990s to Education Alternatives Inc., a for-profit contractor that since has been renamed Tesseract Group Inc. But the experiment dissolved amid funding concerns and debates over the company's effectiveness in raising student achievement.

Samuel C. Stringfield

That history has fueled skepticism in the city about placing public schools in private hands. Among those skeptics is Samuel C. Stringfield, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a city school board member, who opposes the takeovers.

"Within the local political environment, the fact that there are now only two for-profit, out-of-state companies left will probably make the state's job of selling this thing more difficult," he said. "I also believe being out of state and for profit will make the job harder for these companies in this city."

Of the two companies left vying to run Baltimore schools this time around, Edison is bigger and better-known, managing 79 schools serving 37,000 students in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

Richard W. O'Neill, Edison's vice president of development, called any charge that his company wasn't qualified for the Baltimore job "ridiculous."

"Edison operates schools in Boston, Washington, D.C., Miami, Denver, San Francisco, and Chicago, to name just a few big cities, and has done a terrific job in areas where it has worked," Mr. O'Neill said.

Mosaica is a 3-year-old company that manages eight charter schools in Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The company's president, Michael J. Connelly, said Mosaica also has run schools in troubled areas, but said no one knows quite what to expect with Maryland's unique process. "In this exact situation, neither we nor anybody else have done this before," he said.

The state plans to award three-year contracts, and the managers chosen will be expected to show progress in student achievement during that time in order to have their contracts renewed.

Vol. 19, Issue 22, Pages 1, 22

Published in Print: February 9, 2000, as Private Firms Tapped To Fix Md. Schools
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Web Resources
  • Learn about the policy of reconstitution from the Maryland State Department of Education.
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