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September 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 1

Response / Entrepreneurship: The Road to Salvation for Public Schools

By pooling the talent and resources of seasoned educators and the private sector, Education Alternatives, Inc. is reinvigorating school systems in several cities.

What is a nice public school educator doing in a company like Education Alternatives, Inc.? It's a question I'm often asked, having spent my entire teaching and administrative career working in public schools, and having administered large urban school districts in Milwaukee and St. Paul. My answer: I'm exercising a conviction that public-private partnerships offer the best hope for improving the nation's public schools. I continue to subscribe to Horace Mann's vision of the strength of public schooling in a country where the pauper's and the banker's child may sit side by side.
  • The average Japanese student was more proficient in calculus than the top 5 percent of American students in college preparatory courses;
  • The top 1 percent of American students scored lower in algebra than did their counterparts in 13 other countries; and
  • American children, when compared with children in six other countries, scored next to last in mathematics.
Our challenge, clearly, is to improve student performance at all levels, while preserving our system's broad egalitarian commitment to educating all students.

Low Scores for the System

Even the most adamant defenders of the status quo concede that conditions at many of our large urban schools are appalling. Why can't the school systems themselves effect change? I know from experience that there are talented, dedicated educators at all levels. Teacher unions have conducted an unrelenting campaign of disinformation against our company and the idea of public-private partnerships. Yet—and it may come as a surprise to some—I don't see them as the culprits. In reality, it is the collective system that is dysfunctional. Despite Herculean efforts by talented school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, students, and communities, the system is so fraught with compromise and regulation that it has been impervious to attempts to reform it.
Yet there are governance systems that do perform effectively in this country. We are, for example, the envy of the world in providing cheap and effective electrical power for our homes and factories. Our public utilities are public monopolies, but they are, nevertheless, cost-effective. If we can privately manage large public service enterprises, why not do the same with public schools?
By combining the talent of those already in public school systems with that of the private sector, we can have the best of all possible worlds. This is precisely what Education Alternatives, Inc. seeks to do. Our approach is not to replace teachers or principals or superintendents, but to make the most of their experience using the techniques of successful companies that in some cases have worked with public schools for more than a century.

Lessons from Three Cities

  • Dade County. In 1992, we created our first public-private partnership in Florida. Teaming up with United Teachers of Dade County, we provided South Pointe Elementary School an instructional program called the Tesseract™ Way. The program uses differentiated staffing to lower the adult-student ratio, and Computer assisted learning to empower the students to take responsibility for their own learning.To assess this approach, Thomas Peeler of California State University, Los Angeles, conducted standardized and independent tests at the outset and again this year. According to the Dade County School District, a comparison of Stanford Achievement Test results revealed that scores in reading comprehension have increased by 13 percentile points, and in mathematics, 20 percentile points. Peeler compared these scores to nine separate grade level measures of other Dade County students and found that South Pointe students exceeded the countywide average on seven of the nine measures by a range of 6 to 17 percentile points. This occurred even though most students enrolled there live in poverty. In addition, South Pointe parents and staff expressed a high level of satisfaction with the district's performance.
  • Baltimore. Last year, eight elementary schools and one middle school, Harlem Park, in Baltimore adopted the Tesseract Way program. Early results are encouraging. On the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, the elementary school students gained 7 normal curve equivalents (NCEs) in reading and 11 NCEs in mathematics performance in the spring-to-fall measure. Moreover, the American Federation of Teachers' claim to the contrary, attendance increased in each of the nine project schools. At Harlem Park, attendance, which historically had been a problem, grew by 10 percent, earning the middle school a statewide award. Even so, it is still too early to judge the program's effectiveness in Baltimore.
  • Hartford. EAI and the Alliance for Schools That Work are in the final stages of negotiation with the Hartford, Connecticut, public school district to manage its 32 schools. The arrangement promises to demonstrate the full potential of the public-private partnership approach.

No Fair?

It is not difficult to envision a time when school districts managed under public-private partnerships exist side by side with conventionally managed districts. The natural competition for students would almost certainly improve the performance of both.
Would this competition be fair? Frankly, no. A public-private partnership has two inherent advantages: (1) readily available private funds, and (2) an initial contract that frees the partnership from having to negotiate each and every administrative decision. Is this skewed competition reason enough to reject public-private partnerships? No, quite the contrary. Public school systems deserve the improved management that this arrangement makes possible.

Perform or Else

Our organization welcomes the challenge of having to measure up to the goals and aspirations of a school district. We are prepared to sign a performance-based contract that allows the school district to cancel the contractual arrangement at any time with a simple majority vote and without having to demonstrate cause. We believe that this arrangement sets up the essential and missing ingredient in the present governance of the public school systems—accountability. For myself, I feel most comfortable working in a public school setting where there is a performance contract that truly represents the district's desires. Such a contract offers a refreshing change for most superintendents; if they are candid, most superintendents will admit that they are more often judged by whether they've complied with the system's process than by district outcomes.
Finally, what about the profit motive? Is it compatible with public schooling? If you think not, then proceed immediately to pack up the computers and pencils and send them back, along with the many other products and services school districts contract for every year. Public schools would be crippled without the private sector and the goods and services it provides. Moreover, in conventional school systems, virtually no one questions whether these relationships are profitable for the private sector. There may be debate about the cost effectiveness of the product or service, but not over whether the company truly benefits the school district. In our view, cost benefit should be the basis of a school board's decision to enter into a public-private partnership.
End Notes

1 C. M. Callahan, (June 1994), “Performance of High Ability Students in the United States on National and International Tests,” in National Excellence, A Case for Developing America's Talent: An Anthology of Readings, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education).

David Bennett has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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