Privatization—the contracting out of government services to private-sector providers—has become popular in many school districts as a way to save scarce dollars and improve non-instructional functions including food, bus, and custodial services.
In February, the small district of Inkster near Detroit took privatization a step further when its school board voted 5-1 to turn management of all of its schools over to a private firm, becoming only the third district in the nation to privatize its entire operation.
The Inkster board chose Edison Schools Inc., a New York-based education management firm, to help bring the financially troubled district out of debt. Edison won the contract over bids from two Michigan firms, Public School Administration Services Inc. of Southfield and the Leona Group of East Lansing. Edison manages many public schools nationwide including individual schools in other Michigan districts as well as several charter schools throughout the state.
Edison has promised to invest $4.5 million in the district, eliminating the district's $1.9-million deficit and allowing it to start the next school year with a budget surplus.
"This route we're looking at is a better route than having the state take over," the Rev. George V. Williams, Inkster School Board president, told The Detroit News. "With our problems, we figured [Edison has] a lot more to offer than the local board can put into place."
The company also has promised to lengthen the school day and year, implement before- and after-school programs, and provide computers to all students, starting with third-graders.
"We have multiple goals," Deborah M. McGriff, an executive vice president of Edison, told Education Week. "We want to improve the academic performance of the students who are there. We want to improve the fiscal stability of the district. And because they have lost so many chil
dren to other choices, we want to improve enrollment."
Enrollment in Inkster schools has dwindled over the past 10 years. In 1990, the district had 3,000 students; today, Inkster has less than 1,500 students. And those students who remain are not doing well: The four-year high school graduation rate is an abysmal 38.7%.
Only two other districts in the nation have ever tried privatizing management of all their schools. From 1993 to 1997, Public Strategies Group Inc. ran the Minneapolis school district. Schools in Hartford, Conn. contracted with Education Alternatives Inc., now called Tesseract Group Inc., from 1994 to 1996.
James Roberts is an attorney and was an education policy researcher and writer with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.