US city hands over school system to profit-makers

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The Independent Online
TED CARROLL makes no apology for what he and his colleagues on the Hartford Board of Education have done. 'We couldn't figure it out on our own. There was nothing more that we could do,' he says flatly. 'I feel more and more that we made the right decision.'

It may be years before he finds out, but educators and parents across the land will be watching intently. In an acrimonious vote that split its members six to three, the board has decided to make Hartford the first city in the United States to surrender management of its publicly funded school system - and its dollars 200m ( pounds 133m) budget - to a private corporation. A few other cities are experimenting with privatisation, but in less daring ways, often with just one or two schools.

That Hartford should be the first to go all the way seems surprising. For decades the insurance capital of the US, it sits at the heart of one America's most well-heeled and prettiest states, Connecticut. Yet this city of just 500,000 people is a microcosm of deprived urban America: a crumbling landscape pitted by joblessness, drugs and gang warfare. After dark, some of its streets are as menacing as any in Chicago, Detroit or Los Angeles.

Inevitably, the crisis has infected the school system. More than 90 per cent of students are from ethnic minorities; half of these are Puerto Ricans, a legacy of labour imported from the Caribbean in the 1930s to work in the former tobacco fields. Forty per cent of students drop out before graduating.

By almost every measure of academic achievement, Hartford schools are at or near the bottom of the state-wide rankings, despite the fact that their annual expenditure of dollars 9,000 per pupil is among the highest in the state.

It is out of undisguised desperation that Mr Carroll and his backers on the board have turned to Education Alternatives Inc (EAI) of Minneapolis to take over the schools and try to improve their performance. His faith in the experiment is based on the not unfamiliar notion that the only sure way to shake up a non-accountable bureaucratic institution is to expose it to business practices. 'Our system doesn't recognise results,' he says. 'It doesn't distinguish between those who are performing and those who are not. And that is wrong.'

But this analysis does not comfort everyone. 'My son's brain is for sale - this is what the contract is saying,' one high school parent complained at a city council meeting.

More predictably, many teachers and their trade unions are appalled by the prospect that their work as public servants is going to be used to boost EAI's profits.

'I feel kicked in the teeth,' says Wendie DiCorcia, who teaches children with special needs at the Thomas Quirk Middle School. 'I am terrified. The adults will survive, but the kids may not. They have been made guinea-pigs enough.'

The contract signed by the board this month should give the children and the city some protection. EAI is taking responsibility for the running of all Hartford's 32 schools, including maintenance, transport and catering. It will spend dollars 20m of its own funds on equipment, especially computers.

Although the final say will remain with the city, EAI will help in shaping the curriculum and the hiring and firing of staff. As for earnings, it will be allowed to keep half of whatever it saves from the schools budget. The board, meanwhile, has the right to break the contract at just 90 days' notice. 'No physician can heal himself,' declares Dr Katherine Henry, EAI's eastern division president and its principal evangeliser in this city. 'In this world we live in, there have been such dramatic changes, no institution is the same, except the schools. George Washington could walk into one of our schools today and feel very comfortable because he would recognise it. And that is criminal.'

Even the children, however, seem uncertain. During half an hour at the Quirk school last week with a class of Grade 7 pupils, aged between 12 and 13, no one seemed to want EAI.

'I don't like them,' said Anna, one of the children. 'I don't think they should take over the school system, and I don't think they will be able to do anything to improve the drop-out rate.' Joseph said the problem was not with the school. 'They can't change anything. I think it's up to the students. If they want to learn, they can learn. If they don't, that's their problem.'

The teacher asked Barbara, another pupil, to find Britain on the world map, 'the one that looks like a kangaroo'. She got it right, more or less, actually pointing to Belfast.

The future of America's entire, lumbering state-school apparatus, which annually eats up dollars 600bn, equal to 12 per cent of the gross national product, may depend on the results of the Hartford experiment. If it fails, the outlook for EAI and the few other for-profit education companies competing with it, will be grim. But if standards are seen to rise, it could trigger a wave of privatisation.

Another, somewhat larger, metropolis is already studying the Hartford experiment. Last week Chicago Mayor Richard Daley ordered his Board of Education to look into the privatisation option.

'Public education is not a sacred cow,' he declared. 'People are demanding action. People are saying, 'My son went through the schools and he can't read or write.' '

(Photograph omitted)

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