- Pennsylvania Among 'Terrible 10' Most Regressive Tax States
- February 4 Non-Partisan Training: HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013: HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Republican Governors Opt-In to Medicaid Expansion
- The Reports of Unions' Death Are Greatly Exaggerated
- Ask Allyson Schwartz to run for Governor
- Mind the gap: Opting Out of Medicaid Expansion Leaves Low-income Families Behind
- Jan. 14 Workshop:HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013; HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Seth Williams on Guns, Jasmine Rivera on School Closures @PFC Meetup Wednesday
- PA Revenue Strong Midway Through Year; Tax Cut Could Have Big Impact
- What to Make of the Fiscal Cliff Deal?
Karen Heller on free market "courage" for the public schools
For now, I am reserving opinions on Dr. Arlene Ackerman’s "Imagine 2014" Strategic Plan document as I reflect on some of the progress the schools have made over the past decade and the challenges that we still face. But one area I am not reserving opinion for is the tired analysis in Karen Heller’s latest commentary on the Philadelphia schools.
Heller talks about plans to "detonate" the "worst schools" and turn over new schools to organizations with "successful track records" like we haven’t heard that line before.
It’s a bold admission that, despite a $2.3 billion budget, what’s being done isn’t working, and outsiders might do a better job.
She dismisses the concerns of those who raise questions about such a plan like the young woman she quotes from the Philadelphia Student Union – a youth group, by the way, whose members have a high school graduation rate exceeding 90 percent.
She then quotes Mastery Charter Schools CEO Scott Gordon for this insight: "Competition works everywhere else as a business model, why not in education?"
Perhaps Heller needs a brief history lesson.
In 2002, the School District of Philadelphia was to all effects detonated in the biggest experiment in privatization in the country. Originally, Edison Schools Inc. was supposed to take over as manager of the entire School District of Philadelphia as a result of the state takeover of the public schools. Overwhelming public opposition and the fortuitous move (from a schools perspective at least) of then-Gov. Tom Ridge to the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security resulted in Edison receiving management of only 20 schools in the district; an additional 25 schools went to a variety of for-profit, non-profit and community providers.
Also since 2002, the district’s charter school system has grown to effectively become the second largest school district in the Commonwealth.
So how’s it all turned out?
Study after study of the district has shown that our experiment in the free market has turned up negligible results. (Go to Research for Action’s website for a compilation of studies; I also referenced a number of studies for my recent Public School Notebook blog post.) In other words, after almost a decade and despite investing hundreds of millions of dollars, overall education management organizations (EMOs) and charters don’t academically outperform the average district-managed school. Now clearly, there are some outstanding charter schools, just as there are some district schools that are outstanding models of achievement, but taken as a whole we come up about even.
We also found out that immigrant students and special education students got shortchanged in the EMO/charter effort. And we found out there really isn’t a competitive market out there when private managers don’t work out. One of the reasons the School District in 2007 renewed its EMO contracts – despite internal district recommendations against doing so – was because it couldn’t find other private managers to replace the failing managers it had.
Furthermore, no matter how successful some private outfits have been, few have a record in turning around large urban high schools on any level of scale. There are a handful of examples out there – South Bronx High School comes to mind – but, as far as comprehensive high school reform goes, if Heller claims there are private managers with "track records," I would like to see the evidence.
Meanwhile what have been the consequences of this experiment? In addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars and reduced capacity in the District, in my mind the lost opportunity costs have been the greatest loss. The opportunity, for example, to focus on serious institutional change – like an investment in our teaching force, for example, or the opportunity to develop quality and equity across the district through a baseline school budget that defines what every school needs. Or perhaps a real plan to lower the high school drop-out rate or improve third grade literacy.
But why do that when knee-jerk reactions are so much more satisfying? It’s so much easier to look at the failure of our schools and start looking for easy answers.
There’s nothing courageous about blowing things up. We’ve done it district after district in this country. Take a look at Chester if you want to see a blown up school system. Or perhaps a trip to New Orleans is in order. It’s easy to detonate. It’s hard to build and invest and believe in our public schools.
We all know the well-documented failure of our schools. We well know the consequences of not investing in them. But the next time you hear someone say it’s time to blow up the schools, we need to think twice about what that really means.