From Public to Private


The largest privatization of public schools in the nation’s history will begin in several weeks. Last month, the New York City Board of Education received proposals from 14 private educational companies to take over management of up to 51 of the city’s lowest-performing schools, located primarily in African American and Latino communities.

Most of them, called SURR schools (Schools Under Registration Review), could end up under the aegis of Edison Schools, the nation’s largest for-profit school management company. Edison, a Manhattan-based education company, submitted plans to take over 12 elementary schools in September 2001 and up to 45 in three years.

“Under the right circumstances, privatization can be an important tool in improving performance, but it is not a magic bullet,” says Chancellor Harold Levy in a recent press release.

Margie Feinberg, a spokesperson for the board, says that this unprecedented privatization is consistent with Levy’s philosophy of reform. “We are looking to improve systems so all students can meet standards and have high-quality teachers. As part of our initiative [of reform], we are looking at every option possible. The chancellor wants to try this.”

To accomplish privatization, SURR schools at all grade levels will be converted to charter schools. The educational management companies whose proposals are accepted will work, along with the board, on that process. Once applications are reviewed, they will be submitted to parents with children in the schools for approval.

Parents will decide by a 51 percent majority—one vote per child—whether to allow management companies to take over the schools. After the parental vote, which could happen as early as mid September, the board will submit plans to the State Department of Education and the Board of Regents for approval.

Advocates and opponents of privatization remain cautious until details are finalized, which may not occur until April 2001. Public funds for converting schools have already been allocated. Mayor Giuliani set aside $60.8 million for charter schools in this year’s $11 billion education budget.

Educational experts say Edison, and private school companies like it, have experienced labor problems in the past. Earlier this summer, teachers at Edison Charter Academy in San Francisco nearly quit over long hours and the lack of freedom to determine curriculum.

Ron Davis, spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers’ union, calls the school board’s plan “very ambitious.” He says the UFT is “open to the idea of privatization, and . . . willing to give it a shot.” But that does not mean the union likes the whole idea, says Davis. “Privatization is not the answer to the ills of our school system.”

Edison Schools executives say that they are committed to working with the UFT. Gaynor McCown, senior vice president for marketing and communications, says that she thinks Edison’s sweeping proposal to take over as many as 45 city schools, pending approval, is a positive thing for the students.

Private for-profit education companies are emerging as a favorable national trend in education, with bipartisan support, says Janelle Scott, assistant director of program development at the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “No one can find a whole lot wrong with [privatization],” says Scott. “It has a broad appeal. Privatization is gaining favor among home schoolers, libertarians, grassroots groups, and others.”

Organizations like the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group in Washington, D.C., believe that these kinds of drastic changes are necessary for troubled public schools. “There is an atmosphere of lethargy and resignation at a lot of these schools,” says Jeanne Allen, president of CER. “It’s a culture you can’t break without completely changing the school. We have to be willing to take risks to help educate our children.” Allen admits that in Edison’s history, these risks have resulted in “awful political battles at the expense of kids.” She says that at the Edison school in San Francisco, teachers became victims of political maneuvering by their unions, adding that these horror stories are possible in New York.

“Private for-profit education companies are emerging as a national trend in education, with bipartisan support. Privatization is gaining favor among home schoolers, libertarians, grassroots groups, and others.”

Edison’s track record dates back to 1995. Even critics of privatization admit their approach has produced impressive results in terms of performance. But Scott points out that there is still a great deal of controversy. “Some communities are really satisfied with Edison, while other communities are not.”

Edison wanted to come into New York several years ago, says Sheila Tranumn-Evans, associate commissioner of the New York State Department of Education. But “at that time, they were reluctant to use a unionized labor force, and their plan did not work.” Tranumn-Evans describes the board’s privatization effort as “radical and proactive,” and says that it demonstrates the “desperate” nature of New York City’s reform efforts.

The bottom line, says Tranumn-Evans, is academic outcome. “The children of New York City deserve a world-class education. There is nothing wrong with our children,” she says. “It’s hopeful to know that we are finally changing the institutions that have failed them. Not because the state is demanding it, but because people are now beginning to think outside of the box to find ways to help children who have the greatest needs.”

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