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Hartford's Bid To Privatize Its Public Schools Gets Tardy Slip

THE turquoise paint on the front doors of Hartford High School is pocked and peeling. The school's library is sparse. Its basketball court lies scuffed and slick, while the bleachers are boarded up, too dangerous for cheering fans.

These are the very problems that a private company was hired to fix when it took over running the 32 public schools in Hartford last fall.

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But a year after the launch of the nation's largest experiment in private management of public schools, there is little evidence of the promised building repair, new computers, or increased security at Hartford High.

Moreover, Education Alternatives Inc., the Minneapolis-based company that was lauded as a model of public-private cooperation when it took up the job, is in retreat. Hammered by school board squabbles, teacher union protests, and charges of broken promises, EAI is scaling back its management of Hartford's schools from 32 to five.

Its record in trying to revive a troubled urban system is being closely watched across the country. "Privatization," one of the buzzwords of the 1990s, is seen as an answer to running everything from prisons to the space shuttle. But nowhere does the idea raise more sensitivities than when applied to public education.

"The first year's always very, very hectic," says EAI Chairman John Golle. "People are skeptical of our motives and inclinations. In general, people are resistant to change, and here you have the added dimension of dealing with children's lives."

The plan to focus attention on five schools rather than the entire district was a last-ditch attempt to save the Hartford partnership. Though controversial from the start, the last few months have been particularly taxing for EAI as the school board first refused to pay EAI-submitted bills they deemed unnecessary and then failed to approve funding in next year's budget for EAI programs.

"The advantage of [scaling back] is that there will be enough change for people to see and stop opposing EAI," says school board member Thelma Dickerson, an EAI advocate. "There's been so much controversy, I don't think EAI's had a chance to prove if they can do the job or not."

Critics, though, say EAI should be dropped altogether. "I think the [school] board made another very foolish move," says George Springer, president of the Connecticut State Federation of Teachers, a union. "This was not an education decision, but a political decision."

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EAI's management of the school system here has been controversial from the get-go. Mr. Golle came to town last year with sophisticated charts, a modest track record, and a philosophy stating that if the school system would allow business to do what it does best, manage, and educators to excel at their strength, teaching, then students would be the beneficiaries.

"The problem is not that Hartford doesn't spend enough money; it's that we need to spend more money on the education of children and less on managing the enterprise," he says. "Over 20 years ... we've moved the money out of the classroom and given it to pay-earning adults."

Teachers and principals, bolstered by a national teachers' union, struck back immediately. "I've worked in this school for 28 years ... and now my reward is to have my pay cut, my pension cut, and be told that I'm doing a terrible job," asks Mike Somona, head teacher of Hartford High School's art and music department.

In the end, Golle convinced two-thirds of a skeptical school board and reluctant city officials that firing EAI was the solution to Hartford's deepening public school problems.

Hartford's 25,000 students are 94 percent minority, consistently rank at the bottom of the state in test scores, and have a dropout rate higher than both state and national averages. Yet the system spends some $2,500 more per student than the national average and $1,000 more per student than other Connecticut districts.

The way Education Alternatives Inc. works is to act as a coordinator between schools and selected companies contracted for needed services. According to Golle, companies such as Peat Marwick, which keeps the schools' books, are experts in their fields and can provide quality service at bulk-rate prices, saving the school system money. Other firms oversee school safety and building maintenance.

The money saved is split three ways: EAI receives 50 percent, the city 33 percent, and the school board 17 percent.

WHAT has turned many who were once open to EAI managers against them is EAI's trail of broken promises. They pledged to install 2,500 computers by the end of their first year in Hartford - a lab in every school. But with year one drawing to a close, they've hooked up only 224 computers in three schools.

They vowed to invest $14 million and make a profit by the end of the first year. That too has turned out to be unrealistic. The school board predicts a $145,000 deficit for next year.

Reviews of other EAI-managed schools have been mixed. A Dade County, Fla., school has not renewed its contract for next year. And though studies of the nine schools managed by EAI in Baltimore show that faculty, students, and parents are pleased with the cleanliness and new computers in schools, many are disappointed that test scores have not risen.

School board member Dickerson blames EAI's slow start on the divisiveness within the community and school system staff. "How could you live up to going ahead and investing all of this equipment when you are not sure whether or not [the contract] will continue," she asks.

Critics say that is at the heart of what's wrong with public school privatization. When profit is the bottom line, teaching children falls by the wayside, they argue. Money is saved when teaching positions are cut or left unfilled and class sizes balloon. "The point is that I'm a teacher, a mathematics teacher," says William Katz, principal of Hartford High. "I know that we can't load our classes up. You can't ask teachers to go in and perform miracles."

In schools where computer labs have been built, though, educators are more complimentary of EAI. Helaine Campbell, vice principal of Clark Elementary School shows off the cramped room where first- graders count computer apples. "We've had children who've been troublesome in the past. Now they love to come in here and tell you about what they're doing."

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