Teachers, Some Schools Worried by Privatization Proposals
By LIZ AUSTIN / Associated Press
Chalk in hand, about 15 second-graders line up to go outside and practice their spelling words on the sidewalks under the warm spring sun.
"A-R-E" they shout as assistant superintendent Jo Ann Garrison quizzes them in the hallway of Marlin Elementary School. She beams at their enthusiasm and hugs a boy before sending them out the door with their teacher.
It's easy to see why this small Central Texas town has rallied around Garrison, who has devoted 19 years to Marlin schools. Standardized test scores have risen dramatically in the two years since she and a team of administrators took over the elementary school, one of just four Texas campuses deemed low performing the last three times ratings were issued.
But for-profit companies, universities and other outside groups may replace homegrown reformers in other struggling Texas schools under a plan being pushed in Austin.
A bill approved by the Texas House calls for private management of campuses that, for two straight years, rank in the bottom 5 percent of the state's accountability rating system and fail to show annual improvement as required under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The Senate is considering a plan that would apply to campuses identified as academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency two years in a row.
It's an unpopular idea among teachers' unions and public education advocates, who fear the state's most vulnerable children could be at the mercy of a company's bottom line.
"When you turn a school over to a for-profit company their number one priority is making a profit for their investors. That's not necessarily what it should be when we're talking about educating Texas kids," said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a public education watchdog group.
But for-profit companies have no chance of making money if they don't do great things for kids and schools, said Adam Tucker, a spokesman for Edison Schools, the nation's largest for-profit school operator.
"Our number one bottom line is academic achievement for kids," he said.
The House bill's author, Republican Rep. Kent Grusendorf of Arlington, also emphasized that nonprofit groups, community organizations and other school districts will be encouraged to apply for management roles.
"I'm not really nearly as interested in who it will be as I am the results that are going to be obtained," Grusendorf said.
Schools around the country have seen mixed results after privatizing low-performing schools.
The Dallas school district ended its 2 1/2-year relationship with Edison Schools after the 2002-03 school year, saying test scores didn't improve enough to justify the expense. The district paid Edison $39 million to manage seven schools in the 2001-02 school year alone.
A 2003 study by the Government Accountability Office found students in privately managed schools in San Francisco and Denver had significantly higher reading and math scores than students at similar traditional public schools. But in Cleveland and St. Paul, Minn., scores were significantly lower in privately run schools.
Philadelphia is in the middle of the nation's largest experiment in privatization. Twenty-three of 45 city schools run by outside managers, including Edison, met requirements under No Child Left Behind last year, up from seven the prior year.
But those improvements largely mirror gains seen in most of Philadelphia's regular schools since the state took over the roughly 270-school district in 2001 after years of low academic achievement and rampant discipline problems.
"The early evidence is (privatized schools) are no better," said Clive Belfield, associate director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University. "Certainly they haven't run away with the argument yet."
It's hard to predict how many Texas schools would end up under private management if the proposals become law.
Last year, 92 of Texas' roughly 7,800 schools — or about 2 percent — were rated academically unacceptable, the state's lowest rating. Eighteen schools, including eight charter or other non-traditional schools, have received an unacceptable rating at least two years in a row.
About 400 Texas schools failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind in 2004. Thirty-three were also rated academically unacceptable by the state.
And Texas continues to make it harder to receive an acceptable rating as it works toward No Child Left Behind's goal of getting 100 percent of children proficient in reading and math by 2014.
Starting next school year, 60 percent of a school's students will have to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in reading/English language arts, writing and social studies. Fifty percent had to pass this year. The passing rate requirement also will jump from 25 to 35 percent in science and from 35 to 40 percent in math.
If those standards had been in place last year, about 1,200 schools would have received an unacceptable rating. But Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said the agency expects fewer schools to miss the mark. Texas has raised its passing rates several times over the years, and schools have responded with higher scores.
Marlin Elementary's test scores skyrocketed with a restructured curriculum aligned with state guidelines. Administrators also replaced or reassigned about half the school's teachers and reworked the schedule to add time for teaching.
A $1 million state grant helped the impoverished district 30 miles southeast of Waco buy reams of supplies and pay for a teacher trainer, a community liaison and a curriculum expert.
Seventy percent of Marlin Elementary's third-graders passed the math portion of the TAKS last year, up from 29 percent in 2003. Eighty-two percent passed the reading section, compared with 51 percent the year before.
Some scores are still lagging. Only 27 percent of fifth-graders passed the science portion in 2003 and 2004, and the school would have received an acceptable rating last year if two more had passed that part of the test.
But the turnaround was so impressive that the TEA in June pulled the intervention specialist it assigned to the school in 2002.
"Every little face that comes through this door we're glad to see them," Garrison said. "I think that that is now what has been established in the last two years. That we're glad to see them, and we're going to do whatever we can."
Like Marlin, most low-performing schools could improve if given the right resources and advice from the state, Miller said.
"That seems to me to be far more responsible than the state and the Legislature saying, 'We just can't take care of this problem. We want to turn it over to someone else,'" she said.
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