Privatization "Philly Style": What Can Be Learned from Philadelphia's Diverse Provider Model of School Management

Liam Julian

Jolley Bruce Christman, Eva Gold, and Benjamin Herod
Research for Action
December 2005

Following a state takeover in 2001, Philadelphia's formerly blighted schools are today awash in Paul Vallas's innovative reforms (and a few bad ideas that he has presided over). These include: 1) permitting private management companies (EMO's) to run individual schools; 2) establishing a district-wide core curriculum and a system of benchmark exams; 3) placing the middle school grades in K-8 schools and creating smaller high schools; 4) adopting a district-wide zero-tolerance discipline policy; 5) and mandating extended-day programs. But not everything's coming up roses - perhaps because some of these reforms are working at cross-purposes. The authors suggest that private management companies are not raising test scores any faster than are district schools, and that no one provider (in a crowded field) stands out as much more effective than its competitors. The study also notes that the vigorous marketplace competition envisioned by Philly's school reform architects has been significantly diluted. Instead of competing against each other, providers are focused on working together to ensure the system's success as a whole. And while that cooperation sounds nice, it works against the competitive marketplace. Meanwhile, seemingly positive districtwide reforms (such as instituting a core curriculum and benchmark exams) had the unintended consequence of further weakening provider autonomy and eliminating distinctions among management companies. The fear now is that weakened competition may lead to complacency on the part of the management companies. The authors question whether the district will find a way to manage its multiple school providers without further stunting their unique traits and autonomy. More study (and perhaps more time) is needed to fully judge the successes and failures of Philly's system (Research for Action is currently undertaking such an analysis), but this report still provides much good information. Read it, here.