A letter to PA State Senator Jeffrey E. Piccola

Dear Jeffrey E. Piccola,


Greetings Mr. State Senator.  I am writing this letter in response to the legislation you introduced last month in Harrisburg known as the Education Empowerment Act.  I’d like to thank you for making an effort to improve Pennsylvania’s struggling public schools.


If I understand correctly, your empowerment act will give local PA school boards the power to overhaul struggling schools by turning them into charters or schools run by education management organizations. 


I read in the Inquirer that you based your proposal on the recent academic gains made by the Philadelphia School District, which you attributed to charters and private managers. 


No, I’m not offended that you refused to give credit for this improvement to Philadelphia school teachers like myself who work hard every day educating children in traditional public schools.  I know you’re very busy in Harrisburg, so you probably didn’t read the report prepared by the Accountability Review Council for the School Reform Commission in February of 2007.


The report showed that from 2002 to 2006, PSSA scores went up 23 percent in math and 14.5 percent in reading in district-managed schools, while EMO-managed schools only had gains of 19.6 in math and 11.9 in reading.  In other words, traditional public schools out-performed private managers across the board. 


Working in Harrisburg can be quite time consuming, so it is perfectly acceptable that you failed to read the study conducted by RAND/ Research for Action which concluded, “Schools managed by private providers, with additional resources provided for that management, gained at a similar rate as schools in the rest of the District that did not receive additional resources.”  Loose translation: EMOs did no better even with extra money.


As chairman of the State Education Committee you’re undoubtedly bogged down with loads of data.  This probably explains why you also missed the story in the Washington Post dated June 29th, 2008, headlined, “Setback for Philadelphia Schools Plan”.  The article detailed how the experiment with private managers was basically a flop.


“This month, the experiment suffered a severe setback,” the article reported, “as the state commission overseeing Philadelphia‘s schools voted to take back control of six of the privatized schools, while warning 20 others that they had a year to show progress or they, too, would revert to district control.” 


In 2009, after it was shown that 10 of the 16 elementary schools run by private firms did worse than district-run schools, the district demoted the firms from the status of “manager” to the status of “consultant”.     


Charter schools have a whole boat-load of issues that I won’t bother getting into.  But education management organizations?  Their poor track record speaks for itself. 


So why, Mr. Piccola, is your Education Empowerment Act so set on recycled reforms that don’t work?  Is it politics?  Or is it simply less time consuming to blindly drink the EMO Kool-Aid?    


I thank you for your dedication to education, but you might want to actually research your ideas before you jump on the reform badwagon.         


Yours Truly,


Christopher Paslay

School Teacher


Private managers will get paid regardless of services provided


While principals and teachers get publicly reprimanded, the SRC continues to pay firms for failure.


by Christopher Paslay


How many education management organizations does it take to screw in a light bulb? 


Answer: Five


At least that’s how many private firms currently run schools in Philadelphia.  The troubling part is not that numerous studies have shown that these private firms fare no better than traditional public schools (of the 16 elementary and middle schools private managers operate, 10 performed worse than district-run schools).  But that after years of service, the SRC still doesn’t seem to know exactly what these firms do.


In the spring of 2007, the district’s Office of Accountability, Assessment and Intervention submitted an internal report to the SRC on the district’s contracts with the EMOs (there were six in 07). 


According to a May 2007 article published in the Notebook, the District report offered a list of recommendations to ensure a more thorough accounting of how the EMOs used their funds if any contracts were renewed. 


The Notebook article also said that the report found fault with the contract language, and noted that the EMO contracts lacked adequate terms and compliance mechanisms to ensure the delivery of mandated services to special education students and English language learners.       


Two years later it still doesn’t seem like the SRC knows what these private managers are doing.  Associate Superintendent Benjamin W. Rayer told the Inquirer that there was confusion with the current EMOs and that some services were being duplicated. 


“There was inconsistent direction for principals and teachers, and confusion over exactly what the providers were doing for their $500 per student,” the Inquirer reported


This confusion hasn’t kept the SRC from continuing to give EMOs large sums of money.  The district recently recommended spending $9 million to keep the private managers next year. 


But the role of the private firms will be changing: They will go from managers to “consultants” providing “supportive services”. 


What will these “supportive services” be?  No one knows.  The district wants to pay these providers the same amount of money as last year, regardless of services provided.    


If these services look anything like what ReslTech offered Communications Technology, Parkway Center City, and Philadelphia High School for Business in 2006, the SRC might want to reconsider.    


Hired by district officials to maximize effective teaching and learning, ReslTech was paid a large sum of money (the word on the street was $1 million).  But faculty and staff were less than thrilled with their performance.    


Principals felt short-changed, and teachers agreed that the consultants were inexperienced, and recycled old ideas. 


The risk with hiring consultants like ResulTech is that their services are often vague, and hard to measure. 


The district insists that this won’t be a problem with its current EMOs.  According to the Inquirer, the district will “sit down with all the providers and determine what exactly they will work on in each school.”


But there is still a giant kink in this plan.  If the fiscal year starts July 1st, this means the district will be paying for planning and meeting time with the private providers (which could take months).  If and when the plans are ever implemented—and the “supportive services” are ever agreed upon—a sizable portion of the school year will be over.


And more money will be wasted. 


And what about results?  Will these “consultants” in their new roles be held accountable, much the same way principals and teachers are?  Will the district impose specific goals and ways of measuring improvement?  Perhaps a 10 percent increase in PSSA scores?  A notable increase in attendance rates or a decrease in discipline referrals?  Or will performance goals be vague, like the “supportive services” themselves? 


At a time when the district is negotiating with both the principals’ and the teachers’ union (among others), they should be extra-cautious with their money. 


In short: The district should know what they’re getting before they pay for it.