In the latest development in the saga of who will control five of the city's worst schools, Chancellor Harold O. Levy has given parents two extra weeks to weigh information and make up their minds about whether these schools should continue under the auspices of the Board of Education or be turned over to Edison Schools, the country's largest commercial school management company. For Edison to take over, a majority of parents in each school must vote to convert to charter status.
The debate about new management for the schools became especially heated in January, when parents in two of the five schools and other Edison opponents held meetings to protest the plan, which Chancellor Levy and which most of the members of the Board of Education support. Concerns about the plan range from opposition to putting public schools in private hands to fears about teachers' job security to worries about Edison's track record.
Here's how things got to this point. Toward the end of the last school year, the then newly-installed chancellor announced that he intended to accept proposals from for-profit school management companies who thought they could successfully turn around some of the city's failing schools. Levy said he was not committing to anything; he just wanted to see what they had to offer. Fourteen such companies submitted proposals in August 2000.
In December, the Board of Education announced that it would give Edison Schools alone the opportunity to try its hand at running some of the city's worst schools. Levy touted the additional resources that Edison would bring into the schools, up to $2 million per school for new programs in reading and math and training for teachers.
The five schools Edison would run are PS 161 in Manhattan, PS 88 in the Bronx, IS 246, IS 320 and IS 111 in Brooklyn, serving about 5,000 students all together. All of them are SURR schools (schools under registration review), which means they are on the state's list of the worst of the worst schools in the state. IS 320 and IS 111 were scheduled to be closed for failing to improve despite the extra attention and resources they received as a result of becoming SURR schools. IS 111 has been on the SURR list since 1989.
Edison Schools, which runs 113 schools in 45 cities around the country, works to improve student achievement through longer school days, student uniforms, and more computers in the classrooms, but its record for success is not consistent. And most of its evidence of student improvement comes from its own assessments.
Many parents initially seemed ready to give something new a try. But, as time dragged on and information about Edison and the conversion process remained scarce, parental doubts started to surface. Groups that opposed Edison, either in principle or in practice, began to organize and voice their concerns. Now angry accusations of foul play and defensive responses are drowning out the important conversation about what is best for students.
Parents are to begin voting yes or no to Edison during the second week of March.
Jessica Sounds Off:
It is hard to believe that parents and others concerned about children stuck in these abysmal schools are fighting to maintain the status quo there. These schools have claimed to be "turning around" for years, with no convincing evidence of improvement. In the meantime, thousands of children have come and gone without even a minimally adequate education. That parents in these long-failing schools have not embraced a change only attests to flaws in the Board of Education's planning and implementation of the conversion.
The Board. has been unable to improve these schools; Edison's track record is not strong enough to offer any guarantees. If Edison and the chancellor want committed families in the new schools, they should give parents a real choice and make enrollment there voluntary.
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.