Hartford, Conn., has become the largest guinea pig yet in urban experiments involving privatizing public schools. By a 6-3 vote, that city's school board approved a contract with Education Alternatives Inc. to take over the entire school system. That same firm operates nine schools in Baltimore City. So far, however, results here have been mixed.
Although EAI promised "immediate gains" in student achievement when it began running its "Tesseract" schools two years ago, test scores have shown no significant improvement. Meanwhile, an all-out effort by teachers' unions against EAI has gained support among some political opportunists. Even so, EAI advocates are encouraged.
Not surprisingly, Hartford's decision to put all 32 of its public schools under EAI management has provoked considerable controversy, too. The system there has about 24,000 students, or about a quarter of Baltimore's enrollment.
The local school board, supported by Connecticut's major daily newspaper, the Hartford Courant, strongly supported the change. But skeptics remain, including the city council, the city's chief financial officer and its corporation counsel. Responding to local critics, they have threatened to block funds to implement the program. Many parents fear the company will put profits before education. Others wonder whether the city would be so quick to hand over its public schools if Hartford's student enrollment wasn't predominantly black and Hispanic.
The city's corporation counsel has warned the school board he will not sign the contract because it cedes too much control to EAI. He says it does not contain adequate safeguards to make the company accountable for student performance. Under the agreement, the company would pocket half of what was left over after paying its expenses from the school district's $171 million budget. Critics maintain that any savings should be plowed back into schools.
Moreover, Hartford's schools already are involved in a desegregation lawsuit, and it is unclear how that would be affected by privatization. Still, EAI has scored a major coup in winning the nation's first system-wide contract. If it succeeds in improving Hartford schools, other cities would have reason to follow suit. It could accelerate this nation's experiments in educational privatization.