Going private - the US experience

Next week the Government launches one of the most radical plans ever which will draw in private money to tackle the problems of inner- city schools. We have been taking lessons from the Americans
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The Independent Online
EVEN FROM the outside, the Boston Renaissance School stands apart from other US inner-city schools. It meets, for eight hours a day instead of the usual six and 200 days a year instead of 180, in a renovated office building in a business district. The staff are young and energetic, and computers gleam everywhere.

But the Renaissance School is not typical in the US. It is operated for the city under contract by a multi-million dollar private corporation, the New York-based Edison Project, and has a president, a board of directors and independence from the usual constraints of the education authority's centralised bureaucracy and labour agreements.

"We're able to take all the research that's been done into school reform and do it all at the same time," headmaster Ester Gliwinski says during a quiet moment in a brightly-painted conference room.

From an experiment at a single Miami elementary school in 1990, the privatisation of publicly funded schools in the United States has grown so fast that educational management companies are finally anticipating their first profits. The biggest of those companies, the Edison Project, doubled the number of schools under its control last autumn, and will double again this autumn to 48 schools with 23,000 students. It has attracted $161m from investors, including the Swedish industrial holding company Investor AB, and a $25m grant from the owners of The Gap clothing store.

Millionaire entrepreneur Chris Whittle, who founded the company, says: "There is enormous demand for the service we offer. School districts and citizens groups across the country are actively seeking new approaches to education." Boston's Renaissance School, for example, quickly filled its 1,080 places and has a waiting list of 2,000 families fed up with the city's low-rated public schools. In Detroit, a new privately operated school that opened last year had to hold a lottery to choose from 1,700 applicants for 690 places.

The movement has also benefited from the advent of charter schools, publicly- funded schools underwritten with tax dollars and chartered by parents or teachers who often hire for-profit management companies. Thirteen of the 25 schools Edison runs are charter schools, while the rest are operated under contracts with school districts. Five hundred charter schools have been approved to operate in 30 states - 50 of them run by for-profit companies. That number is expected to quadruple in two years.

But the educational success of privatising schools is far more difficult to gauge than their financial and enrolment results.

In its first performance report, released in December, Edison claimed students entering its schools at the age of eight or nine raised their test scores by more than 25 per cent over two years and showed stronger reading skills than their counterparts in regular schools. Student attendance was 94 per cent, much higher than the national average.

Parents of students in charter schools told University of Minnesota researchers that their children showed greater motivation to learn, more confidence in themselves and greater satisfaction with their education. At Boston's Renaissance School, students outscore the state average in tests of high- order thinking and four out of five parents say the school is better than their child's previous school.

Benno Schmidt, the former Yale University president who now heads Edison, says: "Children in virtually all Edison schools are posting significant gains. Communities want those kinds of results."

But the American Federation of Teachers shot back with a report in May that criticised Edison's promotional materials for overstating its success. Actual results were modest at best, and class sizes were high according to the teachers' union, long a foe of privatising schools.

A 1996 New York University study found privatising poor inner-city schools failed to save money or improve learning. And University of Maryland researchers found test scores actually dropped in the first two years of a contract under which a company called Education Alternatives was hired to run nine city schools in Baltimore in 1992. Then they rose only to previous levels - even though per-pupil costs were more than 11 per cent higher than in the rest of the district.

The school board voted in 1995 to cancel the contract, saying it was too expensive. The company and Congressional investigators dispute the criticisms, saying reading and maths scores rose versus those of conventional Baltimore schools, and that school buildings were cleaner and parental involvement increased.

Nancy van Meter, the teaching union's privatisation expert, says: "Whatever the promises are, it's critical that communities are very clear about what they're expecting to get. We know that there are good and bad public schools, just as there are good and bad private schools.

"The question we struggle with is how we get all schools to be better schools, and private providers simply don't have the magic bullets."

The union complains that half the teachers in Edison schools have less than five years' experience, compared to the national average of 16 years, and there is a 23 per cent teacher turnover rate - twice the national average. Edison officials respond that they hire young, enthusiastic teachers and fire those who don't work out well, while contract stipulations in regular schools make firing a teacher almost impossible.

Ms Gliwinski, a former public school teacher and one-time union member, says: "Part of accountability is, if you are not doing the right job for these children you go away. In public schools you have to live with bad teachers for ever."

Union opposition managed to block a bid by Edison to take over five public schools in Dayton, Ohio, in April, after teachers rejected longer school days and demands that they reapply for their jobs.

But as opposition has hardened, so has the private companies' resolve; along with angry parents, Edison now is considering opening charter schools in Dayton, a move which could force teacher redundancies because of a potential exodus of students and funding. A similar scenario is unfolding in North Carolina.

Dr Phil Geiger, president of Education Alternatives, says: "The unions will never accept it...they're invested in maintaining the status quo."

The company, which now runs 16 charter schools with more scheduled to open in the autumn, changed its name in December to the TesseracT Group after a magical hallway to accomplishment in the book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.

Dr Geiger, a former public school superintendent, says expectations are high and people are impatient for results in a field where improvement can take years to show up in test scores.

"It's not that the private sector is the silver bullet. What is the silver bullet is the idea we have in this country that competition makes everything better. The culture of schools is so hard to change that the only way to have reform is to create the schools again from scratch."