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Private Companies in Action: A Glimpse into Philadelphia

Page history last edited by Katrina Reichert 14 years, 7 months ago

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     After years of political turmoil and disastrous student achievement in the Philadelphia Public School System, in an unprecedented move, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania issued a state takeover. Amidst high public resistance, in December of 2001, the Pennsylvania Education Secretary Charles Zogby signed a Declaration of Distress, signaling for the first time that Philadelphia no longer had control over the ways in which their schools were run. However, as the story played out, this was not necessarily the case. The relationship between the public and private sector proved to be more “blurry” than was first anticipated. Former US Secretary of Education Rod Paige stated in 2004 (as cited through Gold, Christman and Herold, 2007) that the Philadelphia experiment had “blurred the line between public and private. . . Everyone in the nation should take notice of these [public-private] partnerships.” (p. 182).


City vs. State


     The decade leading up to the state takeover of the Philadelphia School District was fraught with social and political controversy including tensions between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia. Contested issues included those of finance, failed reforms, toxic political climates, and accusations of discrimination. In 1998, the superintendent, David Hornbeck, threatened to shut down the district in response to the state’s refusal to balance the city’s school budget. The state, in turn, responded with a counter threat to takeover the entire school system. In an Education Week article from this period, Republican House Majority Leader John M. Perzel asserted, “We’re saying if you can’t do it with what you have, we’ll do it for you.” (April 29, 1998) The tipping point came when the state decided that they would takeover and privatize the 215,000 pupil district, giving Edison Schools Incorporated (now Edison Learning), a contract running dozens of school and fully managing the central district office.  


State Takeover 2001


     Following fierce public opposition and seemingly intractable views on the role of private companies in the public sector, the state and city eventually came to view the takeover as a step toward a collaborative reconciliation. “The two men shook hands, hugged, and praised their partnership as they announced their plan. But there was little doubt that it was a state takeover.” (Gewertz, 2002) 


The “Diverse Provider Model”


     Diverse Provider Model’s are characterized by their ability to provide students and parents with a diverse host of management providers who address their individual, social, and academic needs as constituents. Theoretically, the “portfolio” of providers will also create a sense of internal accountability, driving the various schools to improve as a result of market competition pressure. In the Philadelphia case, it was utilized as a way to mitigate conflicts between the public and private constituents. Yet there was controversy as to whether the Philadelphia school district allowed the model to fully come into fruition. In essence, it became a hybrid model that set out to encourage “cross-sectoral collaborations.” (Gold, Christman, & Herold, 2007) 


The Unintended Effects of Public/Private Partnerships


     The ways in which the Diverse Provider Model was implemented in Philadelphia dramatically affected its impact on the privatization of the Phildelphia’s school system. The district CEO and Superintendent Paul Vallas remained fiercely committed to maintaining control over the providers’ schools which ultimately inhibited the DPM theory from fully coming into fruition. As the Gill, Zimmer, Christman, and Blanc study (2007) asserts, “The Philadelphia model was characterized by little competition among providers and by the absence of parental choice among the educational models offered.” (p. 14) Thus, due to the way the DPM developed over time in the restructuring, it became clear that the presence of EMOs increased the central control of the Philadelphia School District, contradicting the theory by making the district the core institution to which the providers answered and in which they ingratiated themselves. 


Where Do Philadelphia Schools Stand Now?


      As of Fall 2009, there are only five providers that still have contracts with the District of Philadelphia. The Chancellor Academies’ contract was not renewed after the first year, and Temple University pulled out in 2008. The district maintains that these contracts serve far less students than the original DPM, down from 28,000 to 13,000. The focus now is not on “managing”, but building support service based “partnerships” with these providers. (The Notebook, Fall 2009)


      In early 2009, CEO and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman proposed a new reform strategy largely based on the Chicago school system’s Renaissance 2010 program, called Imagine 2014. A major component to Imagine 2014 involves turning around chronically failing schools through a “Renaissance Schools Initiative.” The initiative is geared toward providing school choice to families through and by providing the “opportunity for school communities to rally around the transformation of their neighborhood school.” (Renaissance Schools Advisory Board, 2009) 


Click here for full text of Private Companies in Action:

A Glimpse into Philadelphia (PDF).


Click here for the interview transcript of Dr. Paul Hill, Professor at University of Washington and Director of the Center on Reinventing Education


Click here for the interview transcript of Helen Gym, Founder of the Parents United for Public Education

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