More Public-Private…And Do We Need A Baker-Hamilton In Philly?

Interesting and important new RAND analysis* on the various school management options in Philly. Local media heat here, and hotter heat here. Punchline: Outside (for profit and non-profit) managers got more resources but did no better (and in two cases a bit worse) than other public schools in Philly and lagged a bit behind some schools the district especially targeted for improvement. I remain agonistic on the for-profit issue, results and public accountability matter more, but these disappointing results will ignite a firestorm.

But that overall punchline obscures a couple of issues worth considering. First, some are arguing that the mere presence of the private managers drove the overall improvements through a competitive effect, but I don’t buy that. However, although they did get more resources, the private managers were given the most difficult schools. The study controls for that but there is a big capacity/scale issue embedded as well. Namely could the district have done as much, meaning tried to help as many schools intensively as have been touched by various reforms during this process, without bringing in some external help? That’s an open question and gets to various views about various reform strategies.

Now that’s really neither here nor there in the political debate about this because the for-profits are going to get hung on their own gallows. They’ve been implicitly and explicitly making promises that are awfully hard to keep in the context of the difficult work of urban school reform and this report will crystallize that. Instead, the more powerful case they can make is about capacity, scale, and partnership because that’s a more realistic role here. That’s because the real punchline is that there are no silver bullets. But it may be too late for them in Philly. To borrow the current parlance, the options here are probably a costly and intensive surge or a pull-out because one way or another something will have to change here.

*One of the authors, Brian Gill, is on the ES Research Advisory Board.

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