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Public Schools in Private Hands

When Hartford, Conn., decided to contract out management of its school system to Education Alternatives Inc., it prompted a stream of comment from educators nationwide

ARE public education and private profits compatible?

Ten years into a national debate over school reform, this question is asked frequently as school boards and parents seek ways to accelerate change in the classroom.

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The controversial move toward bringing in private companies to manage public schools converges this fall on Hartford, Conn., where the biggest such experiment is getting under way.

Hartford, a modest-sized city known primarily for its insurance industry, is in the final stages of hammering out a contract with Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI).

The Minneapolis-based firm has operated nine public schools in Baltimore for the past couple of years, an undertaking that has won kudos for cleaning up buildings and improving the learning atmosphere and stern criticism for inflated promises of quick academic success.

Hartford, however, will be the first US city to put its whole district under private management. That milestone has prompted a stream of comments from national education-watchers, a few of whom gathered in Boston recently for a round-table discussion sponsored by Education Week, a newspaper devoted to school issues.

Thelma Dickerson, an English teacher and vice president of the Hartford School Board, opened the discussion by explaining her city's decision to go with EAI.

``Our students are not receiving an education commensurate with what the board of education spends,'' she said. Hartford's schools are burdened by a high dropout rate and teen pregnancy among other problems associated with urban schools, she noted.

``Everything we've tried just hasn't worked. Costs are spiraling, and the achievement of students is going down,'' Mrs. Dickerson said. She and a majority of school board members felt radical change was in order. They talked to a number of companies involved in education management, visited the Baltimore schools run by EAI, and saw enough to convince them to give it a try.

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Why is the option of private management gaining appeal in Hartford and other places?

According to Stephen Tracy, a senior vice president with the Edison Project, another company seeking to manage public schools, private managers are freer to innovate and try new approaches.

A former school superintendent himself, Mr. Tracy characterized most public schools as ``protected monopolies'' unresponsive to the public's demands.

Unlike EAI, the Edison Project wants to manage a few specially structured ``charter schools'' in communities, rather than whole districts. It would lengthen the school day and the school year for students, emphasize the use of computers, and focus on a curriculum ``anchored by the `greats' '' of literature and art. The company is currently negotiating contracts to operate schools in Massachusetts and other states.

By far, teachers' unions have been the most vocal critics of school privatization. Edward Doherty, head of the Boston Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, softened that criticism a bit, however.

He said his organization doesn't take a hard-line position against private operators, so long as safeguards are built into contracts. Among these, he said, would be the use of outside auditors to scrutinize a company's operation, the posting of bonds to tie down a company's obligations, and a cap on profits.

``Unrestricted and unfettered private management of public schools is what we oppose,'' Mr. Doherty said.

Dickerson pointed out that Hartford is sparing no effort to draw up a contract that includes many of the safeguards suggested by Doherty, including the posting of a bond and tying EAI's profits to students' performance at the end of a term. ``Believe me,'' she said, ``if I had been EAI I'd have gone back home.''

Tracy, too, endorsed the concept of independent audits and profits based on performance, but he had doubts about a ``cap'' on profits.

``No other company doing business with the Boston public schools has one,'' he said, noting that lots of private firms already receive public-education funds for transportation, food preparation, and other services.

Nailing down accountability and figuring out who to blame if things go wrong are inevitable facets of the debate over private management, but they miss a basic point, said Tony Wagner, another Education Week panelist and president of the Boston-based Institute for Responsive Education.

The fundamental issue, in his view, is the obsolescence of the traditional ways of organizing education in the face of new workplace and citizenship demands. What's needed, he said, is thorough restructuring, and it could come under either private or public management.

He noted that there are examples in the US of public schools doing remarkable things through more personalized attention to students and an emphasis on critical thinking.

He mentioned Central Park East Secondary School in Manhattan, which sends nearly all of its students on to college, in stark contrast to most of the city's other schools.

On the other hand, if private managers come in and try ``to manage an obsolete system'' - not jettisoning things like reliance on multiple-choice standardized tests - they'll just perpetuate the problem, Mr. Wagner said.

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