An Alternative Proposal for Philadelphia

A privatized school monopoly is no better than a government school monopoly

The following article originally appeared on EducationNews.org. See also Mr. Brouillette's testimony before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on school reform lessons from Michigan.

After years of failed attempts to reform Philadelphia's 200,000-student district, Pennsylvania policy makers are looking for drastic measures to turn around the nation's eighth largest school district.  Recently, the plan to hand over management of the district to Edison Schools Inc., a private education service provider, was removed from the bargaining table.                   

Although turning to the private sector for assistance is a good idea, the problems in Philadelphia go far beyond just exchanging the managers of the current system.  The educational crisis in Philadelphia is the direct result of monopoly—that is, a lack of choice for parents, and a lack of competition among schools.  Bringing in Edison would have done little to change the situation in Philadelphia, except that Edison would have become the monopolist. 

Unfortunately, a privatized monopoly is no better than a government monopoly.  Under either arrangement, a child has few options when her assigned school does not meet her educational needs.  The only difference is that that child will be trapped in an Edison school instead of a government-run school.  Until the problem of monopoly is addressed, education reform in 2001 will be little more successful than past efforts.

There is a better solution to the education crisis in Philadelphia.  The key to real and lasting change lies in empowering parents as education consumers (giving them choices), freeing local schools from onerous state, local, and district bureaucracy, and introducing competition among city schools.  Ultimately, genuine education reform in Philadelphia will have to come from within the community, not from Harrisburg or city hall.

Instead of making Edison or the current district management the only option for Philadelphia parents, they should be two of many options for city families.  The best way to break up the school monopoly is to invite Edison Schools and the multitude of other education service providers, as well as the teachers' unions, to help turn around the city's schools. 

This can be accomplished by transforming each of the 264 district schools into independent public schools, establishing a local board of directors for each school, allowing each board to determine who will lead and manage the school, drafting a performance contract, and having the district CEO and board of education oversee the individual school contracts.

Doing so would free schools from cumbersome, centralized bureaucracy and allow parents, students, teachers, and principals to take responsibility for their particular school.  District bureaucrats would no longer control the budgets, personnel, and curriculum at say, Gompers Elementary.  Instead, vested individuals at Gompers would be free to work with nonprofit organizations, universities, groups of teachers, for-profit firms, unions, or whoever could best help them improve their school.  Local decision-makers at Gompers would be responsible, and held accountable, for the results.

Philadelphia's local school board would still exercise oversight by authorizing and evaluating each school, then deciding whether to renew its contract—or to hand over the school to someone else who could better manage it.  But schools themselves would be free to hire, fire, and promote personnel on their own.  They would determine their own pay, budgets, curricula, dress codes, and so on.  Philadelphia parents could then choose the schools that best fit their children's unique educational needs, regardless of where the family lived.  If they couldn't find a satisfactory school, they could band together with other parents or a community organization to propose their own independent school. 

This model is certainly not perfect, and some schools will likely fail to meet minimum expectations and standards.  But when these schools fail, they can be shut down or turned over to new management.  Either way, children would have the opportunity to attend a better school.  Of course this is a radical departure from the current system, which lurches from failure to failure with seemingly no end in sight, but the status quo is simply unacceptable.

The governor of Pennsylvania and mayor of Philadelphia have the opportunity to implement reforms that will significantly improve the educational opportunities for Philadelphia's 200,000 students, as well as lead the way in urban education reform for the nation.  However, shifting control of the city's school monopoly from the government to a sole private company is not the answer.   

The greatest hope for effecting positive, lasting change in Philadelphia is to create an education marketplace, where continuous quality improvement in schools is the rule rather than the exception.  Until we allow for more choices for parents and greater competition among schools, well-intentioned but desperate measures will continue to come up short.

Matthew J. Brouillette, a former high school teacher, is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute based in Midland, Michigan.  More information about the Mackinac Center is available at www.mackinac.org.

"Until we allow for more choices for parents and greater competition among schools, well-intentioned but desperate measures will continue to come up short."

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