Guest Post from Charles Zogby, he’s currently Senior Vice President for Education Policy with K-12* and the former Secretary of Education Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He was active in the reform efforts in Philly while he was secretary. Responding to this post he writes:
I wanted to respond to your recent post regarding RAND’s analysis of the various school management options deployed in Philadelphia. You note in your post that for profit and non-profit managers received more resources but did no better in producing academic performance. This is not an entirely accurate picture of either the conditions of the schools or the challenge that the private mangers were handed.
The private managers were not only given the worst performing schools in the district (as measured by state assessment results), they were also given the most under-resourced schools as well. As part of its takeover of the Philadelphia School District (PSD), the state’s own assessment of the 89 schools targeted by the School Reform Commission (SRC) for private management revealed that these schools received as much as $2500 per pupil less in funding, or an average of about $1 million per school, than the average PSD public school. These inequities, which were well document at the time and have since been validated in other contexts by researchers such as Marguerite Roza, were the prime reason for state’s insistence that its new investment in the district be directed toward these most troubled schools. Only after the state threatened to withhold new dollars did the SRC, which initially balked at giving these schools and their new managers any new resources, ultimately agreed to direct a portion of the new funds to the schools. Even the largest grants (about $850 per pupil to some schools if I recall correctly), however, made up only a fraction of the under funding that had been systematically denied these schools in the past.
Despite the continued and persistent under funding, and the added hindrance of having to work under the district’s collective bargaining agreement where they technically have control of the schools but less than satisfactory authority over the school’s personnel, many of the outside managers have produced substantial academic gains. While not perfect or uniform to be sure, their performance over the last 5 years, on the whole, significantly outpaced anything ever produced in prior PSD administrations. Nor do I believe that PSD on its own could have matched the progress made in the last 5 years had the state simply given them additional resources without also insisting on the private managers or a wholesale reform of the district’s administration, including a new CEO. And whether you buy it or not, it is undeniable that the introduction of the private managers stimulated change throughout the district, including the willingness of other institutional players to bend to new reforms and changes.
One can be agnostic on for-profits and a healthy dose of skepticism as to their ability, or anyone else’s for that matter, to turn around decades of neglect, under funding, and underperformance in just a few short years. But let’s judge the performance of the private managers fairly and accurately and against the realities in which operate. Even accepting RAND’s analysis at face value, for my own part, the far more interesting question is not why private managers did no better than the regular public schools in PSD, but rather why the regular public schools, better funded and supported, could produce no greater gains than the private managers.
*K-12 does business with the Philadelphia School District.