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CEOs as School Principals

Privately run public schools have spurred both innovation and controversy during the decade or so they've existed.

With profit as a motive, managers of such schools can use market incentives to create new curricula and teaching methods. In many cases, they're less bound by union rules. More orderly classrooms and rising test scores in privatized schools have impressed parents.

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When they do well, they can inspire traditionally managed schools to follow suit. But they can also create fierce opposition.

In San Francisco, for instance, a new school board openly skeptical of privatization is pushing to revoke a contract that a previous board signed with Edison Schools Inc. The company, which runs 113 schools in 45 cities across the US, currently operates one elementary school in San Francisco. The board's majority says Edison has not lived up to its promises and may have transferred out lagging students in order to boost test scores. Those charges are vigorously rebutted by Edison.

Much of the opposition to privatization of school management comes from teachers' unions, which don't like the added demands that private managers make on teachers. They also argue that the bottom line often matters more than educational progress.

In New York City, a well-mobilized teachers union went all-out to ensure a "no" vote on a recent ballot to reject Edison's proposed management of five poorly performing schools. Voter turnout was very low.

In these cities and elsewhere, Edison is being shown the door by political forces that don't want public schools to be more demanding of both teachers and students. Edison and other companies like it can always use some correction by school boards and other elected officials - but not as much correction as many public schools need.

Meaningful educational reform requires as much experimentation and choice as possible. The new style of school management offered by Edison and its market competitors is still in the development phase. It should be given an opportunity to show what it can accomplish.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor