When the School Reform Commission decides in spring 2007 whether to renew the District's multi-million dollar contracts with six school managers, improvement in test scores will be their primary consideration, according to District officials.
Contracts with the six managers, sometimes called “education management organizations” or EMOs, cover 41 schools. They expire at the end of the school year.
In its deliberations about renewing the contracts, the commission faces some potentially contentious issues about its process and about how the EMOs' performance will be evaluated.
The SRC may make decisions to renew the management agreements on a school-by-school basis, or it may make a decision about providers based on their overall performance. The SRC will have to decide whether new providers are brought in to manage some schools, and also what role parents, school staff, and elected officials will have in the process.
While some are urging the SRC to look beyond standardized test results in these decisions, test scores are the main performance measure the commission is prepared to examine.
“You've got to have benchmarks for where you're going as a district,” Commissioner Martin Bednarek explained, and “most large, urban school districts use test scores.”
The District's contracts with the six management providers - two for-profit companies, two nonprofit organizations, and two universities (see "Diverse provider model") - explicitly spelled this out, stating, “The ultimate success of partnership schools will be measured by improvement on standardized achievement test measures.”
The 2002 contracts required privately managed schools to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards. The contracts also set detailed performance goals requiring providers to reduce the numbers of students scoring “below basic” on the PSSA in each school by a certain percentage each year.
The contracts referred to EMOs' performance in areas such as attendance, disciplinary actions, teacher turnover, and community involvement as “a secondary source of information for the SRC to consider in its determination of contract renewal or termination.”
Two reports on the EMOs' performance are expected over the next six months. The Accountability Review Council (ARC), an independent panel of school reform experts created by the state, will be providing one report to the SRC in early 2007. In addition, the RAND Corporation and the local group Research for Action are preparing a joint analysis of standardized test results, due this fall.
Sorting out the process
SRC Chief of Staff Frank Siefert said the Commission “anticipates the renewals being done on a school-by-school basis,” but Commissioner Bednarek said he was not sure the approach to contract renewals had been determined yet.
Siefert also said that the Commission is expecting specific recommendations from District staff about which schools should and should not continue to be run by private managers.
District CEO Paul Vallas said his staff would prepare recommendations on the contract renewals. He also suggested that the District might consider bringing in new providers for schools where test scores have not improved. “There are a number of universities that are interested in coming in and assisting us,” he noted.
“Those EMOs that are performing will be retained, and those EMOs that aren't will be dropped,” Vallas said. “Those schools that are consistently not making AYP - we'll have to reconsider whether they should be kept under private management, or whether they should be turned over to other private managers,” he added.
But there are those such as Shelly Yanoff of the Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth who point out, “It's not all about test scores.”
“I hope that it would be a comprehensive decision, not just based on AYP,” agreed Janis Butler of Universal Companies. “AYP certainly is important, and it's what we all want to do, but there's a lot of areas where I think you could show growth.” Foundations' Executive Director Rhonda Lauer echoed Butler's remarks.
Politics may play a role in the renewal decisions, as was the case in 2001 and 2002 when Republican governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker pushed hard to bring the EMOs - and especially Edison Schools - to Philadelphia.
Schweiker appointed members of the SRC who shared his support for the private management model: Chairman James Nevels and Commissioners Daniel Whelan and James Gallagher. Whelan's term ends in January 2007, and so Governor Ed Rendell will have an opportunity to appoint a replacement.
Locally, State Representative Dwight Evans and House Speaker John Perzel have been strong advocates of retaining the EMOs as managers of District schools throughout the past five years. Perzel has emphasized that Philadelphia's continued reliance on private managers is key to maintaining legislative support in Harrisburg for funding of Philadelphia schools.
These and other politicians have another connection to the EMOs - as significant recipients of campaign contributions from EMO executives during the past five years. Over $66,000 of the more than $200,000 in donations by EMO officials to local and state campaigns since 2001 has gone to Evans, though Rendell, Perzel, Mayor John Street, and State Senators Vincent Fumo and Anthony Williams have also received substantial contributions (see chart below).
With so many questions remaining about the EMO renewals, some say it is time for the SRC to begin serious efforts to engage the public - parents, students, teachers, and the general community - in this important decision.
Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton called the public role in the renewal process “very vital.” But current plans for public input are modest at best.
According to Siefert, the results of the reports on the providers' performance will be publicly available. However, he said that the only formal involvement the public will have in the renewals would be in late spring, when the EMO contract resolutions appear on the agendas of the SRC's public meetings and public comment is permitted.
The commissioners will not be making any final decisions about the EMO contracts before these meetings occur, Siefert stated. “No vote is taken until we have at least two sessions,” he explained.
The SRC's public planning and voting meetings will offer an adequate opportunity for “public scrutiny” of the renewals, Siefert said.
PCCY's Yanoff, however, cautioned that a lack of public involvement leading up to those meetings could lead to a negative local reaction to the SRC's decisions on these contracts. Although she doesn't think the public “needs to have the last word” on the EMOs, Yanoff stated, they do deserve a more significant role in the renewal process.
“Every contract where the decision-making is opaque,” she warned, “threatens the public trust.”
Politicians benefit from EMO largesse
|Total campaign donations received by area politicians from EMO officials, 2001-2006|
|EMO officials’ total donations to area politicians and PACs by provider, 2001-2006|
|Source: Pennsylvania Department of State|