Wednesday, March 29, 2000
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Volume 65, Issue 121

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Privatizing America's schools: cure or curse?

By T.L. Hall
Daily Cougar Staff

Americans never seem to have a shortage of words to criticize their public schools: unsafe, overcrowded, under-funded. But even with recent years' growth in private and charter schools, one possible solution -- allowing private companies to manage public schools -- has drawn scant support.

"For many years a sacred cow, public education is no longer perceived by everyone to be the great democratic equalizer which, in theory at least, was supposed to provide us with the semiliterate society upon which democracy depends," Rice University Professor Edward E. Williams wrote in 1990.

"Rather, to many it has become a giant sinkhole for money, where even the most rudimentary cost/benefit analysis shows costs to be increasing and benefits decreasing," Williams wrote.

Privatization promises to improve those benefits while maintaining cost. Its supporters point to private companies' ability to introduce innovative teaching methods, skills-based learning and better technology in the classroom than public school districts can provide.

But is privatization a good idea? That question remains unanswered, despite years of debate.

Edison Schools, founded in 1992, is one of about two dozen companies bidding to get into educational management. The company, which had a $122 million initial public offering late last year, manages 79 schools enrolling some 38,000 students.

Thirty-eight of those schools are so-called "direct partnerships," where Edison contracts with school districts to run the campuses. In those schools, Edison claims the curriculum and instruction is carefully designed to be first-rate.

The company says those campuses spend 75 to 90 minutes a day on science and social science studies; an hour on math; and 90 minutes for reading based on skill, not grade level.

Edison says the schools use cooperative learning, an instructional approach in which students model strategies and coach their classmates, while working through assigned activities. To keep its schools up-to-date, every teacher is given a computer, as are students' families.

The schools also stress Edison's eight "core values:" respect, wisdom, justice, courage, compassion, hope, responsibility and integrity.

Whether the promises hold true is unclear. According to officials with the Sherman Independent School District in North Texas, they do not.

The Sherman ISD was the first company not to renew its contract with Edison. Phillip Garrett, the district's assistant superintendent of administration and instruction, said the company's supposedly innovative teaching methods aren't as different as it claims.

"The program used Chicago Math, which was already on the suggested list in Texas and utilized in my district," Garrett said. In addition, he said the Sherman ISD reading time is already 90 minutes per day.

Moreover, Garrett said standardized test scores did improve in the district, but "the students in regular schools made greater improvements than the Edison students."

He cited other problems with the Edison system -- difficulty receiving textbooks on time each fall, for example -- as further reasons for the nonrenewal, but those pale in comparison with the financial aspect of the deal.

Garrett explained that Edison charged the district an average per-pupil expenditure, but differences of opinion arose between the district and the company regarding which expenses could be charged back to Edison.

"This left the ISD losing about $1 million a year during the three years that two elementary schools were Edison," Garrett said.

The Edison program has had a better reception in San Antonio's Southwest Independent School District, however. In its third year with Edison, the district's two elementary schools and a middle school are flourishing, Assistant Superintendent of Administration Gilbert Garcia said.

"Upwards of 95 percent of the parents chose Edison's program, and about the same percent re-affirmed Edison to continue teaching their children when they went into sixth grade and then again when they went into seventh grade," Garcia said.

Garcia and Garrett both said the emphasis on technology is Edison's greatest asset. In Sherman, after Edison installed televisions, telephones and computers in every classroom, voters approved a bond issue to purchase the same items for non-Edison schools.

And for Southwest ISD, the Edison technology was the only answer.

"My district is semi-rural, where little funds are available, so Edison was our only hope for the computer and other technology items," Garcia said.

But the partnership has merit beyond its material aspects, Garcia said. He pointed to Edison's core values as having a positive effect and said the enhanced reading program and Chicago Math have benefited Southwest students.

Garcia also saw improvements in his district's test scores, but he credited the Edison instruction with making those happen. "I am pleased with all aspects of the Edison program and the results that have been achieved in our schools," he said.

The question remains whether Edison will be able to turn a profit. The company has longer school days and years and, at least in Garrett's schools, more teachers. The related expenses, paired with the cost of Edison's highly touted technology upgrades, make many wonder how the company can continue offering all its services for the same per-student price public school districts can.

"You have to keep in mind that public service of any kind is not out to make a profit," said Marvin Jordan, vice president of Louisiana's Caddo Parish Association of Educators and a high school teacher in Shreveport.

"When it comes to making a profit on education, companies will enter with enthusiasm and motivation," Jordan said. "But as soon as they find out a profit cannot be made comfortably, they will bow out."

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