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Schools Monday: The Privatization Panacea

(Please join me at 1 p.m. today--Monday--for a special Thanksgiving Week edition of Potomac Confidential. We'll talk about the latest scandals to hit the D.C. government and school system, Maryland's showdown on slots, and what you're thankful for--as well as what you're eating-- this week.)

Uh-oh, here we go again. Not even a year into D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee's ambitious effort to remake the city's school, it's time once more for a trip into the fantasy land of fixing the schools by handing them over to untested, unimpressive private companies.

Rhee is talking about giving 27 of the District's many dozens of failing schools to some of the companies that contract with school systems to take over and revamp exceedingly bad schools. The track record of such companies is fair to poor. Studies looking at how those companies have performed tend to conclude that the success of the privatized school is heavily dependent on the abilities of the principal and other school leaders, as well as the amount of community support there is for the concept and its execution. In other words, what makes a school work is pretty much the same whether it's a traditional public school or a privatized school.

The attraction of the privatization route is that it's dramatic, and if there's anything Mayor Adrian Fenty and Rhee are all about in their school reform movement, it's being dramatic. The other appeal of privatization is that it's a quick fix, a way to circumvent the failed administration of the D.C. public schools. That's a real appeal, especially given the rising skepticism that Rhee will prevail in her far more ambitious and important effort to win permission to clean house in the DCPS headquarters. Perhaps she is anticipating failure in that effort, which would leave privatization as one of the few remaining ways to pull some schools out from under the cynics and incompetents who toil at the system's central office.

One of the leading companies under consideration to take over some D.C. schools is apparently St. Hope Academy, which is controlled by former NBA star Kevin Johnson. The company's record at its schools in California is not exactly stellar, and it has a somewhat checkered history both as a school operator and as a real estate developer and manager.

In Philadelphia, where an embrace of private management for public schools has led to what some academics call a public-private hybrid school system, the results of the changed structure of public education has been pretty much as mixed as anywhere else. As with charter schools, the bottom line is determined by the creativity and smarts of the school operator, rather than by the very concept of privatization. Some people do this well, most do not. That's par for the course in any kind of school governance. So privatization is neither panacea nor disaster.

But it is folly to assume that the D.C. school system will be rigorous or honest enough to choose the very best of operators if it does go down the road to privatization. The record through decades of experiments with D.C. schools is that almost any charlatan can come along and get a piece of the D.C. system to play with. The charter school system in the District has had a disturbing number of operators who seemed to be in the game primarily to make money or try out some bizarre and ill-planned educational concept. The good charters do exist, but they are hardly the majority of the schools in that chunk of the system.

As the Post's Theola Labbe and Dion Haynes report, No Child Left Behind gives school systems these options for dealing with failing schools: Bring in private firms to manage the schools; convert them to charters; keep them under the system's control but replace the principals and teachers; allow the state -- or in Washington, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education -- to seize the schools; or devise something else.

In the District, there are really only three options, since handing over a school to the "state" is a farce, seeing as how there is no state. Privatization and conversion to charters are paths of last resort; the system should at least make an effort to remake its worst schools with all-new staffs.

Everything Rhee has said since arriving on the scene has raised hopes that the system would cleanse itself and try to manage its schools in a less centralized, more independent and creative manner. To talk of privatization now is to deflate hopes across the city. The chancellor should be focused on building political support for her plan to clear out the central headquarters, not to give away schools before she's even tried to fix them.

By Marc Fisher |  November 19, 2007; 7:14 AM ET
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Yes, the track record of charters is mixed at best with little evidence that student achievement is any better that in traditional public schools, but I wonder whether privatization in this case would expedite the wholesale removal of the current staff and allow for "new blood" to come in and try and turn things around.

Posted by: Simon | November 19, 2007 10:11 AM

As you so well made the point last week, the current school system is so divorced from its mission and bankrupt of an semblance of being a real school system (vs. being a workfare system) that the only political and practical reality is a total break from the current vested powers that be. The charter school system itself may not be the ideal solution, but at a minimum it is a step in the right direction ... i.e., in breaking from the current individuals who control the system and have personal financial interests in perpetuating it. Were this any other non-governmental function, we'd just look at outsourcing the work. But since you can't just look in the yellow pages and find a "functioning school system available for hire", creating a privately-owned and managed shadow system shielded from the inherently corruption-prone tendencies of the District bureaucracy is the only alternative. That's not to say that the District should take a hands off attitude once the District's children have been entrusted to these private educators. It can and should set up a board and staff which can oversee the charter schools activities and successes by managing to defined and measurable objectives. For example, compensation levels paid by the District to these private educators could be tied to testing results by the District's children in nationally administered tests. The better the children do on these tests, the more compensation the private educators receive. The federal government uses this compensation model in many of its dealings with private contractors, and there's no reason the District couldn't.

Posted by: my 2 cents | November 19, 2007 10:40 AM

I think the predictors of success--qualified and competent principals and teachers, and supportinve parents who think that learning is important--are important for either public or "private" schools.

The demonstrated the track records of EACH group are fair to terrible, at least in DC.

The big difference may be that in the private schools, absent the odious interference of the DC School Board and the teachers union, may be able to actually attract better teachers.

That said, although I am a strong supporter of the public school system, they clearly aren't working in the District. They have produced generation upon generation of illiterates, and have allowed their "students" to become entranced with the idea that money is theirs for the taking.

Taking, not earning, as with the teachers, being the operational word here.

Posted by: VA_Lady2007 | November 19, 2007 11:08 AM

At this point they might as well give it a shot. Many DC schools are failing and have been for some time now, why not do a trial run with a handfull of schools and see if it works.
If it does great, if it doesn't then I don't really see where anything was lost.

Posted by: fmccain | November 19, 2007 11:43 AM

I am not pleased with the DC school system right now, they are definitely causing my family some major troubles. I am continually shocked at the insipid comments the teachers make. Then there is the rampant theft issue.

However, really, is there any track record of privatization working in an urban school district?

I hope this is just a big stick she's threatening people with.

Posted by: DCer | November 19, 2007 12:12 PM

If it does great, if it doesn't then I don't really see where anything was lost.

Having spent grade 1-3 in a failing school in Bethesda, let me tell you, what was lost was my ability to write clearly in cursive- something I was never able to fix once my 3rd grade teacher screwed it up and in my new school, the 4th grade teacher felt she didn't have time to fix for me.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 19, 2007 12:14 PM

The big difference may be that in the private schools, absent the odious interference of the DC School Board and the teachers union, may be able to actually attract better teachers.


That is not the case in practice. In practice all teachers want the union benefits which private schools don't attempt to compete with.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 19, 2007 12:15 PM

If any of the powers that be truly want change, they will:
1. clean up the central office, get rid of the incompetent people and cut staff, change most employees to at-will
2. make steps to put the schools on the same page as the central office, there seems to be a great deal of separation between the two
3. hire more qualified school administrators that have an energy and drive for change and being progressive
4. encourage DC residents to become involved through volunteer programs, perhaps through more extensive information through the DC schools webpage and finally
5. fix the damn school lunches!

Posted by: NewDCer | November 19, 2007 12:50 PM

I'd like to see a comparison of salaries and experience standards for in-system teachers versus the charter school teachers. I've taught in three states, so I'm curious how the charters have found a pool of qualified individuals that more conventional systems have overlooked.

Simply being the employee of a for-profit education vendor doesn't make you a qualified teacher, any more than sticking an American flag pin in your lapel makes you a statesman.

Like the legal profession, teaching seems impervious to the law of supply and demand. Alas, the oversupply of lawyers doesn't seem to do much to hold down fees, whereas the demand for skilled teachers doesn't translate to salaries and support commensurate with the so-often-stated goals.

Posted by: Been there | November 19, 2007 12:54 PM

Why would any top notched teacher, principal or proven administrator give up their position in surrounding jurisdictions to work for someone who has three years of work experience leading an institution of higher education (Baltimore Project)? No one desiring a future based on professional qualities and results.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 19, 2007 1:30 PM


We are talking the Titanic here. We need to save souls as soon as we can and if that means farming schools off to the charter companies so be it. I honestly don't think Rhee and staff can devote their attention to all the schools right away so I view this move as hiring a sub-contractor to help with the work load. Give them a chance-it can't be worse than what we are seeing now. If they fail, then bring them back under the DCPS umbrella.

Posted by: takebackourschools | November 19, 2007 2:11 PM

Give them a chance-it can't be worse than what we are seeing now. If they fail, then bring them back under the DCPS umbrella.


No, I'm not sending my kid to a half-baked plan that's going to shut down halfway through the year like the Rock Creek International School did when they filed Chapter 11:

My cousin was in the LA school district from 1966-1975 and the way they taught "new math" totally screwed up her math skills to this day. They taught her a different alphabet (with the shwa and a few other letters) and she still writes notes using those weird letters. Her brother had class in an "open classroom" with 5 classes and the teachers realized by Christmas that he had been skipping math and taking two art classes.

I have many reasons not to trust school experimentation.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 19, 2007 2:26 PM

in case people thought I was nuts, I called my mother and she told me my cousin learned to write using selected extra letters from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 19, 2007 2:30 PM

In all of the discussion regarding DC schools I am amazed that the role of families, particularly parents, is not emphasized. When children return to homes where there is little support to study because of incessant noise, TV, non-scheduled meals, and late hours, how can they be expected to be classroom-ready? I live in Northeast DC and have found it startling to see school-age children out and about at 11:00 pm and later. And do I even dare talk about the moral climate of many households (drugs, sex, domestic violence, etc.)?
I am a very liberal in my politics, but I know that the school system cannot be fixed unless families make a commitment to see that children are respected and given the moral formation required for being citizens and learners at school. All the money and structural changes in the world will not change the basic structure that children need to learn self-respect and respect for others: the family, however it is constructed. I do not hear the Mayor or the Chancellor discussing this and I wonder why.

Posted by: Joseph Palacios | November 19, 2007 2:54 PM

Hey Marc,

If you agree cleaning house in administration is important, how about shining a bright light on whoever it is that's obstructing Rhee's admirable goals in that area?

Thanks for any support you can provide.

Posted by: Marc, how about a hand? | November 19, 2007 3:23 PM

Marc, I actually agree with your piece. I must admit i think you coddle the mayor and Rhee on this issue. i hope now you start to ask tough questions in that what is their plan. as a fromer DCPs employee, it should not be difficult. it has to be classroom instruction based! but they have tough issues of 9-10-11-12 graders reading on 3rd grade levels. what are their plans to address this. simply allowing them to say its the same old people and the same old problems is not enough anymore. Many of those same old people with the same old problems are gone. she has fired them already. what these folks are showing to me is the lack of ability to lead and manage the problem.

Posted by: OKNOW101 | November 20, 2007 11:38 AM

Many of those same old people with the same old problems are gone. she has fired them already. what these folks are showing to me is the lack of ability to lead and manage the problem.
Who has been fired yet? How many principals has Rhee fired? I really want to know.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 20, 2007 1:20 PM

My memory might be slipping, but I seem to recall reading about Richmond's public schools. Even though they face many of the problems DC schools face - uninvolved parents, poverty, etc. - they've decided that those aren't excuses for children not to do well in school. Am I recalling correctly? Why don't Rhee and Fenty take I95 South and see how they schools are doing it. I don't think that privatization was their answer.

Posted by: Fairfax, VA | November 20, 2007 4:42 PM


There are not standard wage scale for charter schools. Each school development its on budget. So you can imagine that some school are able to attract more qualified teachers and personnel such as KIPP, SEED, Edison and others who are established nationwide whereas others are not. This type of system creates an inequity in the quality of education that is being received. Unfortunately, not one is addressing this issue as well.

Posted by: Khathu | November 21, 2007 9:14 AM

I strongly advise The Washington Post to investigate the ties between Chancellor Rhee and the Charter School Movement, in particular the NewSchools Venture Fund which funds nonprofit networks of schools that serve a specific geographic area. GreenDot is one of their recipients. This certainly sounds like the privatization of DC's public school system to me. After all, why would the Chancellor be advocating for the expenditure of public funds on more Charter Schools when the existing ones are overwhelmingly failing?

Posted by: Tip | November 21, 2007 8:55 PM

Rhee's ties to Kevin Johnson and his track record in Sacramento should also be more thoroughly investigated. As Marc suggests, Johnson has been revealed to be little more than a slumlord in the way he's handled numerous properties he acquired over the years through millions in tax-payer subsidized grants and loans from the Sacramento redevelopment agency. His refusal to publicly take responsibility for terrible state of these properties(or say anything for that matter...he has repeatedly refused comment) is reprehensible and certainly not leadership.

His high school has lost half the enrollment it had when he took over four and half years least 1000 students who should have been attending that school if it had remained a part of the district are now going to neighboring high schools causing overflow enrollment at those sites.

Rhee really can't be serious in thinking that what Johnson represents is reform. Does she really have any clue? Giving away public schools is not the answer. Marc Fisher, you are raising the right questions...don't let up.

Posted by: Reader in Sactown | November 25, 2007 8:54 PM

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