Features

Philadelphia "freedom"

Education

Issue: "Osama's witnesses," May 18, 2002

When Philadelphia's School Reform Commission proposed a new approach to improve the city's failing public schools three weeks ago, education analysts welcomed it as the first significant attempt to hand a large number of schools-42 elementary and middle schools-over to private managers. What's happened since has underlined why it hasn't been done before.

Last week, after fervent protests from teachers unions, parents, and students, the commission backed off a large chunk of their reforms. Private companies and groups can still operate the schools, but they cannot fire any failing teachers. (The plan still allows for ousting some principals if performance remains a problem.)

The Reform Commission, created by the state after it seized control of the public-school system in December, is placing another 28 schools in the hands of independent community groups and has said it will be up to those groups whether they will privatize the schools. Philadelphia has the nation's seventh-largest school district, with 200,000 students in 265 schools.

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Gov. Mark Schweiker began with a reform plan that called for Edison Schools, the nation's largest for-profit education company, to take over the faltering schools, with Edison employees in the top 55 management positions. He scaled back that plan because of opposition from the same tough front of parents, city bureaucrats, and teachers union officials.

Edison Schools stock has plummeted 70 percent in the weeks since the reform commission gave the company fewer schools than anticipated. The curtailment of their potential to shake up the Philadelphia schools they will "run" may send the stock price even lower. Reform opponents, having helped eviscerate Edison's stock, built on their own activism by suggesting that the company's stock declines meant it wasn't financially viable enough to manage any new schools. Commission chairman James Nevels demurred, saying the commission believes the company "passes muster at the present time."

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