Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 1

Will Privatizing Schools Really Help Inner-City Students of Color?

Currently no evidence indicates that for-profit educational companies will do any better for poor students of color than public education has done.

More than a decade ago, low-income African-American parents in the inner-city of Philadelphia identified what they saw as the most urgent educational needs of their children: the acquisition of basic skills (reading, writing, and numerical competence); the employment of teachers sensitive to their children's needs; fair discipline policies; and opportunities for their participation in school governance (Farrell and Johnson 1979).
Since that period, many urban school districts throughout the nation have employed superintendents of color to address these concerns. They were hired with the expectation that their racial and/or ethnic backgrounds would give them an advantage in framing effective educational initiatives for students in their charge, increasing numbers of whom are poor.
Yet, the last generation of these superintendents, who, for the most part, inherited school districts crippled with administrative problems involving politics, finances, staff, and pupil control and achievement, have experienced —al success or outright failure (Robinson 1973). Academic outcomes, discipline policies, teacher sensitivity to students of color, and parent satisfaction have continued on a downward spiral. As a result, superintendents in a number of urban school districts, including Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., have been forced out or have resigned under pressure during the 1990s (Adams 1993, Celis 1993, New York Times 1993).
The newest urban superintendents are beginning to pursue a different educational strategy. They are contracting for educational services with private-sector, for-profit corporations. They often trumpet privatization as an “educational elixir” for the trenchant instructional problems they face. In doing so, they are in effect abdicating the leadership responsibilities bestowed upon them by their core constituencies.

Where Privatization Is Implemented

Privatization is under way in Baltimore and Minneapolis; it is scheduled to be implemented in Massachusetts; and it is being explored in Milwaukee and in Hartford, Connecticut (Celis 1993, 1994a, 1994b). A substantial number of the schools targeted for private-sector contracting are overwhelmingly populated by poor students of color.
Inner-city parents, who are desperate for educational change, generally have not opposed the trend of privatization, because it is frequently recommended by urban superintendents who “look like them” and who have ascended to office as a result of parent and community advocacy (Business/Education Insider 1993; Lawrence 1993; Parks 1993, 1994a, 1994b; Tucker 1994). An exception to this trend is Washington, D.C., where negotiations between the public schools and a for-profit educational company for the management of 15 all-black schools were discontinued after black community activists pledged to seek the ouster of the black superintendent and to target school board members for defeat if they supported this initiative (Schmidt 1994c).
On the whole, however, it seems that after decades of efforts by inner-city communities of color to wrest control of urban schools from white administrators, these superintendents now appear to be staunchly committed to giving educational control to white administrators in for-profit educational companies (Farrell et al. 1994). This curious turn of events has enormous implications—almost none of which are positive—for people of color, students, and school staff alike.

EAI's Dubious Economies

One of the two biggest operatives in the for-profit educational arena is Educational Alternatives, Inc. (EAI) of Minneapolis. EAI has managed nine schools in Baltimore since September 1992.
In recent years, EAI has contracted with Johnson Controls Worldwide Services (a subsidiary of Johnson Controls in Milwaukee) for maintenance, secretarial, and food services, and with KPMG Peat Marwick, the world's largest accounting firm, for financial management and accounting services.
A review of EAI's business practices reveals that in the maintenance, secretarial, and food service categories, where substantial numbers of minority workers are employed, EAI seeks economies through restructuring and technology (Miner 1993, Rose 1994).
In Baltimore, EAI's restructurings have resulted in layoffs and/or layoffs and rehires of these same individuals at substantially reduced wages and benefits. Such employee reductions further contribute to the already devastating economic downturn in major central cities, where large numbers of the working class and working poor, many of whom have children in the public schools, are in economic distress (Milwaukee Sentinel 1993, Urban Institute 1992).
Moreover, EAI has been inclined to decrease schools' reliance on paraprofessionals, most of whom are people of color residing in communities served by the schools. In Baltimore, white interns who hold college degrees (not necessarily in education) largely replaced the paraprofessionals, and the paraprofessionals' pay was reduced from $10 to $7 per hour with no benefits.
Unlike the paraprofessionals, the instructional interns were not unionized and were more subject to EAI work rules. But because of the lower wages, EAI has had difficulty retaining these college-educated interns—most take the EAI job until something better comes along (Miner 1993, Ruffini et al. 1994, Salganik 1993). This is an old problem in school reform: Reform activity may disrupt employment opportunities and other perquisites protected by public-sector legal arrangements (Tyack 1974).
The same issue arises with respect to cost containment and minority subcontracting. By contracting with Johnson Controls Worldwide for maintenance, food, and secretarial services for the schools under its management, EAI was able to reduce costs by declining to renew or initiate contracts with minority contractors. Further, in reallocating scarce resources in Baltimore, EAI (with the approval of the Baltimore School Board) eliminated teaching positions in art, music, reading, and special education (Miner 1993, Ruffini et al. 1994).
The only evaluation of EAI's efforts to date has revealed that it has purchased a number of computers, painted and cleaned up the school buildings, and made some parents and teachers “feel better” about their schools. EAI has been able to accomplish these tasks because it has had more money to spend than comparable schools in the same district (Miner 1993, Rose 1994, Ruffini et al. 1994). On the key issue of academic performance, EAI has not yet delivered. Maybe it will if it is given more time and money. Ironically, this is the same argument advanced by the educational establishment that EAI seeks to replace!

Whittle's Marketing Plan

A second major player in operating for-profit schools is the Edison Project, a subsidiary of Whittle Communications of Knoxville, Tennessee. The Edison Project is new to the game of contracting for public school educational services. In 1992, Chris Whittle announced that the Edison Project would build 1,000 for-profit private schools across the nation and that these schools would compete directly with public schools. He positioned Edison to become the largest beneficiary of publicly funded private school vouchers projected to emerge from legislative initiatives in Oregon, California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
The California choice legislation, alone, would have secured Edison's for-profit school base, but, after a series of crushing legislative and referendum defeats, Whittle has now turned to competing with other private-sector educational contractors for contracts with the public schools (Celis 1994a, Hamilton 1993, Kozol 1992, Miller 1993, Miner 1993). For example, the Edison Project will manage five charter schools in Massachusetts and is currently negotiating to manage some public schools in Milwaukee (Celis 1994a, Parks 1994b).
The Edison Project's curriculum design, which it recently filed in its application to manage the Massachusetts schools, does not emphasize a multicultural curriculum (Edison Project 1994). The reading curriculum for grades 3 through 10 includes classical works of literature, including Treasure Island, Little Women, Animal Farm, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Most students will be expected to take an advanced calculus or a probability and statistics course before graduating. The science curriculum will emphasize project-based and cooperative learning, and students at the primary level will be required to maintain gardens in order to learn about plants, soil, and the weather.
The social sciences will feature a required course on the U.S. Constitution, which will be taught via distance technology by Edisons President, Benno Schmidt, former president of Yale University. In addition, Edison schools will provide instruction on values and character and will emphasize physical fitness. Each student will have a quarterly learning contract, and, eventually, a computer at home that will be plugged into Edison's national computer network, “The Common” (Edison Project 1994).
Urban school authorities need to consider whether this educational design can be linked successfully to the complex educational needs of predominantly poor student populations of color. Course content on African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and the fast-growing new Asian immigrant student populations does not appear to be emphasized, nor is attention paid to new ethnic immersion school initiatives that are being developed in urban school districts.

No Track Records

Although urban public school educators are not achieving the results their constituents would like, there currently is no evidence that for-profit educational companies will do any better or that they possess any special educational expertise in working with poor students of color. Private companies have no long-term track records of educational success. In addition, their preoccupation with maintaining the necessary revenue streams to ensure an adequate cash flow appears to take priority over their focus on the grave educational problems they are contracting to solve (Cariedo 1994, Landler 1994, Marcial 1994, Rose 1994, Schmidt 1994a, 1994b).
Outcome data on these educational innovations are sketchy at best. Milwaukee's parental choice program has generated mixed results after three years of operation. The reading and math achievement scores of voucher students, in comparison to their public school counterparts, fluctuated wildly over the three years for which data are available, and the former performed no better overall (Witte et al. 1993). Recent private-sector educational contracts have yielded no measurable improvements in educational outcomes (Ruffini et al. 1994); and charter schools' results have been cast in anecdotal terms or in analogies with comparable initiatives in other countries. Indeed, a Detroit charter school that since 1993 has spent more than a million dollars in start-up costs has already failed (Brand-Williams 1994, Sautter 1993, Wohlstetter and Anderson 1994).

No Quick Fixes

Have professionals and parents of color had substantive input into the policy, design, and implementation processes of these for-profit educational companies? The evidence is fairly clear: people of color have rarely played major roles in either the design or implementation of these initiatives. The founders of both Educational Alternatives, Inc. and the Edison Project, and the developers of their initial marketing strategies all have been white males (Edison Project 1994, Farrell et al. 1994). As a consequence of their lack of input, people of color who work in the affected school districts appear to be bearing disproportionately the brunt of the downward economic mobility that has accompanied privatization.
To conclude that privatizing public education will improve the education of inner-city children of color is premature (Johnston 1994, Kozol 1992). The jury is still out on the merits of this educational reform strategy for urban schools.
After the investment of millions of public-sector dollars in private-sector educational initiatives, only one point is clear: The effective instruction of disadvantaged students is not subject to quick fixes.

Adams, D. (October 15, 1993). “McGriff Fuels Detroit Worries.” Detroit Free Press: 1A, 8A.

Brand-Williams, O. (March 4, 1994). “Wayne State's Charter School Earns an `F.'” The Detroit News: 1.

Business/Education Insider. (November 1993). “For-Profit School Management Spreads.” Business/Education Insider: 1–2.

Cariedo, T. (February 26, 1994). “Suit Questions the Rise and Fall of EAI's Stock Price.” Star Tribune: 5.

Celis, W., III. (December 1, 1993). “Schools in Minneapolis Try a Corporate Approach.” New York Times: B10.

Celis, W., III. (March 19, 1994a). “Private Groups to Run 15 Schools in Experiment in Massachusetts.” New York Times: 1, 8.

Celis, W., III. (April 19, 1994b). “Hartford Seeking a Company to Run Its Public Schools.” New York Times: A1, A11.

Edison Project. (1994). Partnership School Design. New York: Edison Project.

Farrell, W. C., Jr., and J. H. Johnson Jr. (1979). “Educational Concerns of Inner-City Black Parents: A Pilot Study.” Resources in Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction 166 297).

Farrell, W. C., Jr., J. H. Johnson Jr., and C. K. Jones. (January 6, 1994). “Black School Administrators Are `Passing the Buck.'” Philadelphia Sun: 29.

Hamilton, W. (October 11–17, 1993). “Vouching for Change in California.” Washington Post Weekly: 33.

Johnston, J. (1994). Education of Channel One. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

Kozol, J. (September 21, 1992). “Whittle and the Privateers.” The Nation: 272, 274, 276–278.

Landler, M. (August 1, 1994). “Financial Triage at Whittle.” Business Week: 27.

Lawrence, C. (December 4, 1993). “MPS Board Shows New Willingness to Consider Charter School Plans.” The Milwaukee Journal: A1, A21.

Marcial, G. G. (February 28, 1994). “A Very Bad School Report.” Business Week: 94.

Miller, J. J. (November 4, 1993). “Why School Choice Lost.” The Wall Street Journal: A16.

Milwaukee Sentinel. (May 18, 1993). “Life for Blacks, Hispanics, Just Tops Being in Russia.” The Milwaukee Journal: 1A, 15A.

Miner, B. (Summer 1993). “Education for Sale.” Rethinking Schools: 15–17.

New York Times. (December 8, 1993). “As Superintendents Go Out of the Revolving Door, Reform Efforts May Go With Them. A Case in Point.” The New York Times: B8.

Parks, D. (December 16, 1993). “Fuller Asks Panel to OK Innovation.” The Milwaukee Sentinel: 5A.

Parks, D. (January 6, 1994a). “Fuller Gets OK to Look at Private Firms.” The Milwaukee Sentinel: 1A, 11A.

Parks, D. (March 3, 1994b). “MPS Picks Potential Private Partner.” The Milwaukee Sentinel: 1A, 10A.

Robinson, T. J. (1973). “Chief Black School Administrators: A Critical Look at the Specific Factors Involved in the Selection of Chief School Administrators Who Are Black.” Doctoral diss., Michigan State University, East Lansing.

Rose, M. (May/June 1994). “Baltimore's Private Hell.” American Teacher 78, 8: 10–12.

Ruffini, S. J., L. F. Howe, and D. G. Borders. (January 1994). The Early Implementation of Tesseract 1992–93 Evaluation Report. Baltimore: Department of Research and Evaluation, Division of Educational Accountability, Baltimore City Public Schools.

Salganik, M. W. (December 19, 1993). “The Coming Scandal.” The New York Times: E7.

Sautter, R. C. (1993). Charter Schools: A New Breed of Public Schools. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory: Policy Briefs, Report 2.

Schmidt, P. (January 26, 1994a). “Baltimore, E.A.I. Resolve Enrollment-Count Dispute.” Education Week: 6.

Schmidt, P. (March 9, 1994b). “E.A.I. Fiscal Health at Issue in Suit by 2 Stockholders.” Education Week: 6.

Schmidt, P. (March 16, 1994c). “Privatization Proposal Deleted from D.C. Agenda.” Education Week: 6.

Tucker, W. (February 3, 1994). “Foot in the Door.” Forbes: 50–51.

Tyack, D. B. (1974). The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Urban Institute. (September 1992). Confronting the Nation's Urban Crisis from Watts (1965) to South Central Los Angeles (1992). Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute.

Witte, J. F., A. B. Bailey, and C. A. Thorn. (December 1993). Third Year Report Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Madison, Wis.: Department of Political Science and the Robert LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Wohlstetter, P., and L. Anderson. (February 1994). “What Can U.S. Charter Schools Learn from England's Grant-Maintained Schools?” Phi Delta Kappan: 486–491.

Walter C. Farrell Jr. has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 194211.jpg
The New Alternative Schools
Go To Publication