Philadelphia’s Privatization Experiment Produces Gains

Published October 1, 2003

One year after the nation’s largest school privatization experiment began in Philadelphia, the competition between restructured city schools, privately managed schools, and charter schools has led to significant gains in student achievement for Philadelphia students.

Remarkably, the 21 schools overhauled and given extra support by the Philadelphia school district outscored both charter schools and those operated by private managers–including Edison–on state reading and math tests.

The restructured schools reduced the number of students scoring below basic levels by 15 percentage points in math and 11.3 in reading. Edison’s 20 schools, by comparison, barely changed the percentage of students in that category in math and did slightly worse in reading.

Of 17 Edison schools with fifth grades, reading scores improved in 13 and math scores in 14. Of the 12 with eighth grades, five improved both reading and math scores, while seven saw scores drop. Edison has a history of slower achievement growth during the first academic year, and Philadelphia has been a particularly hostile environment for the company to attempt reform efforts. Edison must show significant student performance growth in the 2003-2004 school year in order to retain the Philadelphia contract.

There was less resistance to change in the restructured schools because most teachers and principals saw the reform efforts as staving off privatization.

Edison Goes Private

In June Edison announced plans to take the company private. Edison has signed a merger agreement with a new company formed by its own management team and an equity firm, Liberty Partners. Essentially, “going private” means a company’s shares are no longer publicly traded on the stock market, but instead are purchased and held privately by a small number of owners. The acquisition is expected to be completed in Fall 2003 and is subject to the approval of the company’s stockholders.

The change is part of Edison’s plan to maintain a lower profile while diversifying into a wider range of education services including after-school care, summer school, school tutoring, and student assessment and benchmarking services.

Adding Partnerships

Philadelphia Schools Chief Paul Vallas has shifted his school partnership strategy to rely on more universities and nonprofit organizations to help fix Philadelphia schools. Six universities, a museum, and William Bennett’s for-profit K12 have joined the list of outside groups hired to run pieces of the nation’s seventh-largest public school district.

The district’s eight new partners will offer a range of services at 16 city schools–including teacher certification courses, tutoring, and mentoring programs–and help develop the district’s curriculum. The new agreements would leave schools in the city’s control.

Some examples of the new Philadelphia partnerships include:

  • Drexel University has offered to act as a consultant for the district on matters related to school design, information technology, and business management. It will send more than 2,000 of its own students into city schools to perform volunteer work.
  • Eastern University wants to install a program at a city high school that would integrate university-level courses into the regular curriculum, allowing students to earn up to two years of college credit by the time they graduate.
  • K12 is developing a Web-based teaching program for a new city elementary school scheduled to open in 2004.
  • Philadelphia’s science museum, The Franklin Institute, and one of its pharmacology and health sciences colleges, The University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, have agreed to help the district open and operate a pair of new science-themed high schools.
  • Lock Haven University will create a mentoring, certification, and master’s degree program for new teachers at a city elementary school.

Vallas said the partnership agreements would cost about $3 million. He plans to announce several more partnerships with private groups in the coming weeks.

Lisa Snell is director of the education program for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. Her email address is [email protected].