Hoping to reverse years of low student achievement and mismanagement, the Pennsylvania control board that is running the Chester-Upland schools took the dramatic step last week of hiring three for-profit companies to run 11 of its 14 schools.
The move means that private-sector managers will shoulder significant responsibility for the education of all 7,500 students in the urban district south of Philadelphia. Three of the district’s schools already were run as independent charter schools. While districts nationwide increasingly are turning to the private sector to run schools, Chester-Upland appears to be the largest district to contract out the operation of all its schools.
“We wanted to create a level of competition,” said Thomas E. Persing, the president of the three-member state board of control that announced the bid winners March 22.
Edison Schools Inc. will take over four elementary schools and two middle schools, with about 3,000 students total. Based in New York City, Edison operates 113 public schools nationwide—the most of any for-profit manager of public schools.
Edison had proposed running all 11 of the schools in a novel management partnership with the state affiliate of the National Education Association. (“Edison Makes Bid To Run Troubled Schools in N.Y.C., Pa.,” Jan. 10, 2001.)
But Mr. Persing, who is also the superintendent of the nearby 3,300-student North Dublin district, said the board “did not want to trade a public monopoly for a private monopoly.”
“We were disappointed,” said Robert Browne, the regional field director for the teachers’ union. “We thought it was a good idea.”
On the other hand, Mr. Browne said he was pleased the outside managers must hire the teachers in the schools they take over. “There’s an appreciation that the board of control recognized the value of our employees,” he said.
LearnNow, based in New York City, will take over the district’s only high school, as well as three other schools, with a total of some 3,000 students.
“We have spent several months getting to know the community and understand the complex issues facing the district,” said Eugene Wade, the chief executive officer of LearnNow, which was founded in 1999 and runs five schools in three cities.
Meanwhile, Mosaica Education Inc., also of New York City, will take over an elementary school.
Chester-Upland is one of 12 districts designated by the state as academically low-performing. A state board has overseen the district’s finances since 1994. Last year, however, a panel named by Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok took over all of Chester-Upland’s operations.
Mr. Persing argues that desperate measures were needed in the district. About 40 percent of its students drop out before finishing 12th grade, and 68 percent failed the mathematics and reading portions of the state’s exams.
A 32-year veteran public school administrator, Mr. Persing acknowledges that even a few years ago he would have recoiled at the idea of backing such extensive intervention by the private sector.
Why now? “Failure,” he said. “We cannot continue to pour the same old wine out of the same old bottle.”
Many important details need to be worked out. The control board must negotiate specifics of the five-year contracts with each of the companies, including what they will be paid, as well as the academic goals they will be expected to reach.
Complex three-way negotiations involving the board, the companies, and the teachers’ union also must be held.
Mr. Persing said the board would keep Superintendent Sterling I. Marshall to oversee district operations, including plans for $100 million in construction projects.
Meanwhile, officials of the three companies are being encouraged to start meeting with teachers in their schools and to visit the sites as soon as possible to begin laying the foundation for the transition.
They take over the schools completely on July 1.
“This changes the role of the board. Rather than operating schools, they are general contractors,” said Mr. Hickok, who is leaving his post this month to become the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education. “I think that’s a role that will become popular down the road.”
Mr. Hickok said he understands, however, if not everyone is pleased with the outcome. “People there have seen superintendents and boards come and go. I don’t blame them for being cynical,” he said. “But I think the providers did a good job winning them over.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as State Chooses 3 Companies To Run Pa. District’s Schools