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Philadelphia Schools and Privatization — Is It a Mistake?

The Philadelphia schools have been contracting out (also called privatization) many schools services to for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations for four years and are entering their fifth.

School Reform Commissioner Daniel Whelan is willing to contract out any service, operational or educational, where there are providers able to meet the Philadelphia schools criteria, according to the Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook, a nonprofit newspaper.

School Reform Commission Chair James Nevels endorses contracting in non-academic areas, because it allows educators to focus on education. The Commission has been mandated to find ways to improve the city’s failing schools, which includes contracting out education services. Nevels concedes that such services for the Philadelphia schools have been privatized.

Success of such Philadelphia schools contracts has yet to be determined. Across the nation, privatization of public school services has seen inconsistent results.

Nevels believes that all Philadelphia schools privatization contracts require close oversight, as well as periodically reevaluating where the Philadelphia schools district currently stands — is privatization working or isn’t it? Effective oversight, however, may not be easy to achieve.

Jeff Henig, professor of political science and education at Columbia University, believes that effective oversight requires strong and capable government. If the Philadelphia schools are under-funded, like many school districts across the nation, they will not have the resources to collect and monitor their own data, leaving them to rely upon the data provided by their contractors. Though, as the number of providers grows, competition generally will ensure good prices, as well as quality services. Henig notes, however, that many of the larger providers have been buying up the smaller ones, increasing their ability to control the market and the competition. Thus, Henig suggests that the Philadelphia schools should limit privatization to short-term projects where an established expertise exists, such as upgrading technology, in order to maintain leverage. He also cautions that the Philadelphia schools also should be wary of losing the capacity to provide any type of service — once they do, they are at the mercy of the providers.

Charlene Haar, president of the Education Policy Institute, disagrees. Haar notes that studies have shown that competitive markets really do work for districts like the Philadelphia schools, because businesses look at the bottom line and the quality of services. If either are ignored, another provider will get the contract.

Carol Ascher, researcher at Annenberg Institute at Brown University, raises broader concerns about public school privatization in her book, “Hard Lessons: Public schools and Privatization.” Ascher believes such outsourcing of services has had a negative effective upon public schools, citing that cheaper is not always better. She notes that many privatized and charter schools tend to hire very young teachers and have high mobility rates. Ascher further argues that low paid teachers will not necessarily work as hard as older, more experienced teachers, who have tenure and a vested interest in their schools. As to operational services, she believes the privatization tends to eliminate the inclusion of local community providers, taking jobs out of the neighborhood.

All in all, many educators agree that the Philadelphia schools serve their neighborhood, too; and higher test scores are not necessarily well served by providers outside the public sector.

About the Author: Patricia Hawke is a staff writer for Schools K-12, providing free, in-depth reports on all U.S. public and private K-12 schools. Patricia has a nose for research and writes stimulating news and views on school issues. For more information on Philadelphia schools visit

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