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Contracting Schools Out is Not the Solution

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last month the School Reform Commission approved Arlene Ackerman’s strategic plan, Imagine 2014. The most controversial part of the plan is the proposal to turn some of the lowest performing schools into Renaissance Schools.

An RFP will soon go out to outside providers and educators that want to take over and turn around these schools. While I applaud the District’s commitment to bringing much needed change to schools that have been entirely unacceptable for far too long, I am concerned that too much focus is being placed on turning these schools over to outside managers rather than on building the District’s capacity to transform its own schools.

Many people argue that we should not be worried about who is running schools. They say that if private companies or charter management organizations can do a better job of educating students, then we should turn our schools over to them. While I support the urgency for major change, I think this is a shortsighted approach which has several problems:

  1. Contracting out is part of an ideology that says that by bringing schools into the free market we will see improvement. For those that believe that, I invite them to look at what the free market has done to our economy or health care. Following this way of thinking could result in a situation where we no longer have a public school system, but just a bunch of companies running separate schools with little to ensure equity or accountability to the public.
  2. We need a strong system of public schools that ensures that all students get a high quality education. Charters and contract schools will never serve the majority of students. If charters were supposed to bring innovation, at what point do we take the lessons learned there and apply them to the rest of our schools?
  3. Charters and contract schools are less accountable to the public. Just look at some of the recent finance scandals or problems parents have had getting charter boards to address their concerns.
  4. Many charter schools have a history of not accepting or pushing out the students they don’t want. This raises questions about whether they really have the solution to improving education for all students or whether they are successful because they can be selective about their students.

My point is not that charters and contract schools are bad. Many of them do a great job educating students.

The point is that the real solution is not to create more charters and contract schools, but to look at what works (in charters and elsewhere) and apply it to our public schools.

If charters work because they are small and have more control over their hiring and budgets then that is what all schools need. We do need to make bold moves to transform failing schools, but there is no reason that this has to mean contracting schools out. It does matter who runs our schools. Public schools are a key component of a democratic society.

Let’s make them work, not give them away.

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