Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Privatization and DC Schools

DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee is considering hiring either for-profit or non-profit groups to manage 27 failing DC schools. Of course, the label privatization gets thrown around and everyone starts to go ape.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, in considering turning over the management of 27 failing public schools to nonprofit charter education firms, is sending a clear signal that she intends to shake up the moribund bureaucracy that has failed generations of students.

But experts and school advocates say they are uneasy about the lack of details surrounding her idea, particularly given evidence across the country that charters and schools under private management sometimes fare no better than traditional public schools.

"There's nothing in the literature [to suggest] that privatization will get you revolutionary results," said Henry M. Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University's Teachers College.


Rhee is not the first D.C. schools chief to consider education management firms for troubled public schools. Frustrated by dismal test scores across the city, in 1993 School Superintendent Franklin L. Smith wanted to hire Education Alternatives to manage 15 failing schools. Amid an angry community reaction that labeled the proposal racist and elitist, the Board of Education opposed it and Smith abandoned privatization.
Since then, the growth of independently operated charter schools and national groups including KIPP and Imagine Schools, which operate multiple campuses in the city, have dramatically altered the education landscape. In that new climate, along with stronger federal mandates to improve schools, experts say privatization might have a stronger chance to win approval.

Education activists cite Rhee's expressions of no confidence in the central office administration as an indication that she is more inclined to seek outside help. She has asked the D.C. Council to give her authority to fire hundreds of office employees she considers incompetent.
The last bit there is the real driving force. Rhee has little or no confidence in the DC schools' central office and her decision to outsource the administration of some schools is a reflection of that distrust. As Kevin Carey commented,
It's worth noting that the word "privatization" means different things in different contexts. In health care, for example, it can mean selling public or non-profit hospitals to private companies, which then own them outright and run them at a profit. That seems like a reasonable use of the word "privatize."

What Rhee is considering, by contrast, is hiring either a for-profit or a non-profit organization to take over certain administrative and management functions for a fixed period of time, with the schools, teachers, and students remaining firmly in the public realm--accountable to public officials, paid with public funds, remaining public employees, etc. That's a lot different then selling off a hospital, to the point where I'm not sure using the same word to describe both scenarios is useful.
Sure, Rhee needs to be careful about how the deal is structured.

In the end, it is not likely that these outside groups can do any worse than the current management.

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