This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Six years ago, Philadelphia captured national attention when 45 of its lowscoring public schools were turned over to outside providers, including for-profit companies, universities, and nonprofits. It was described as the largest such move ever by a school district to contract out the management of public schools.
This June, Philadelphia was again in the national news – this time for the magnitude of its retreat from the use of these “education management organizations,” or EMOs, to operate schools.
Citing poor performance, the School Reform Commission (SRC) voted June 18 to return six of the 38 District schools still under private management to District control, and gave 20 other EMO schools only one-year extensions instead of longterm contracts. Twelve higher-performing EMO schools were promised three-year contract renewals with their managers.
Despite the decision to scale back privatized management, however, District leaders say they remain committed to a “multiple provider” approach, in which District-run public schools operate alongside charters and schools run by EMOs.
“We’re using this year to figure out how we’re going to be using charters and EMOs” to manage or assist the District’s lowest-performing schools, explained Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
The six schools returned to District management for this year – Gillespie, Harrity, Potter-Thomas, Stetson, Dunbar, and FitzSimons – were promised extensive interventions as part of Ackerman’s new Empowerment Schools Initiative.
The first four were formerly under Edison Schools Inc.; Dunbar was managed by Temple University; and FitzSimons by Victory Schools. All these schools have failed to meet performance targets under the No Child Behind Law for at least seven years.
The District’s other three outside managers – Foundations Inc., Universal Companies, and the University of Pennsylvania – did not lose any of their schools.
“We had hoped that more schools would be returned to District control,” said Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, one of several groups that have been outspoken critics of the EMOs. “But the SRC’s decision sends an important message that private contracts will be held to a minimum standard of achievement. We’ve spent almost $120 million on the EMO experiment, even though EMOs haven’t really produced a significant turnaround of any district in the country.”
In the Empowerment Schools Initiative, 23 of the District’s lowest-performing schools will receive increased central office support, professional development, and additional school-based personnel, such as long-term substitutes, a parent ombudsman, and nursing services. Another 62 schools will get additional help.