Schools Monday: The Privatization Panacea
(Please join me at 1 p.m. today--Monday--for a special Thanksgiving Week edition of Potomac Confidential. We'll talk about the latest scandals to hit the D.C. government and school system, Maryland's showdown on slots, and what you're thankful for--as well as what you're eating-- this week.)
Uh-oh, here we go again. Not even a year into D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee's ambitious effort to remake the city's school, it's time once more for a trip into the fantasy land of fixing the schools by handing them over to untested, unimpressive private companies.
Rhee is talking about giving 27 of the District's many dozens of failing schools to some of the companies that contract with school systems to take over and revamp exceedingly bad schools. The track record of such companies is fair to poor. Studies looking at how those companies have performed tend to conclude that the success of the privatized school is heavily dependent on the abilities of the principal and other school leaders, as well as the amount of community support there is for the concept and its execution. In other words, what makes a school work is pretty much the same whether it's a traditional public school or a privatized school.
The attraction of the privatization route is that it's dramatic, and if there's anything Mayor Adrian Fenty and Rhee are all about in their school reform movement, it's being dramatic. The other appeal of privatization is that it's a quick fix, a way to circumvent the failed administration of the D.C. public schools. That's a real appeal, especially given the rising skepticism that Rhee will prevail in her far more ambitious and important effort to win permission to clean house in the DCPS headquarters. Perhaps she is anticipating failure in that effort, which would leave privatization as one of the few remaining ways to pull some schools out from under the cynics and incompetents who toil at the system's central office.
One of the leading companies under consideration to take over some D.C. schools is apparently St. Hope Academy, which is controlled by former NBA star Kevin Johnson. The company's record at its schools in California is not exactly stellar, and it has a somewhat checkered history both as a school operator and as a real estate developer and manager.
In Philadelphia, where an embrace of private management for public schools has led to what some academics call a public-private hybrid school system, the results of the changed structure of public education has been pretty much as mixed as anywhere else. As with charter schools, the bottom line is determined by the creativity and smarts of the school operator, rather than by the very concept of privatization. Some people do this well, most do not. That's par for the course in any kind of school governance. So privatization is neither panacea nor disaster.
But it is folly to assume that the D.C. school system will be rigorous or honest enough to choose the very best of operators if it does go down the road to privatization. The record through decades of experiments with D.C. schools is that almost any charlatan can come along and get a piece of the D.C. system to play with. The charter school system in the District has had a disturbing number of operators who seemed to be in the game primarily to make money or try out some bizarre and ill-planned educational concept. The good charters do exist, but they are hardly the majority of the schools in that chunk of the system.
As the Post's Theola Labbe and Dion Haynes report, No Child Left Behind gives school systems these options for dealing with failing schools: Bring in private firms to manage the schools; convert them to charters; keep them under the system's control but replace the principals and teachers; allow the state -- or in Washington, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education -- to seize the schools; or devise something else.
In the District, there are really only three options, since handing over a school to the "state" is a farce, seeing as how there is no state. Privatization and conversion to charters are paths of last resort; the system should at least make an effort to remake its worst schools with all-new staffs.
Everything Rhee has said since arriving on the scene has raised hopes that the system would cleanse itself and try to manage its schools in a less centralized, more independent and creative manner. To talk of privatization now is to deflate hopes across the city. The chancellor should be focused on building political support for her plan to clear out the central headquarters, not to give away schools before she's even tried to fix them.
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