Public School Students Benefit from Private Managers

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission soon will be voting on a budget for the school district. Facing a projected budget deficit, the Commission is looking for ways to reduce costs, which may include reducing or eliminating contracts for the district’s privately managed schools. Such a cut would be a costly mistake—both financially and academically.When the School Reform Commission (SRC) was established in 2002 it was allowed to restructure the worst-performing schools in the district. Some schools were placed under the control of the Office of Restructured Schools (ORS), while others were contracted out to private managers. Contrary to popular perceptions, the privately managed schools cost the school district absolutely nothing. Since 2002, the General Assembly has appropriated $25 million annually to fund the public-private partnerships in the district. In 2006, the legislature added language to the school code that made the $25 million a permanent appropriation and restricts its use “for costs associated with the operation of schools … designated as partnership schools.” Despite the criticisms of these private managers by special interests and perpetual detractors, these partnerships have helped facilitate dramatic improvements in the academic performance of children in the Philadelphia public schools.Philadelphia students’ test scores on the PSSA have increased remarkably in a short time period. The percentage of students performing “proficient” in fifth and eighth grade on both math and reading tests increased more than 20% between 2002 and 2006. Yet opponents of the SRC and the privately managed schools attribute none of this success to these reforms.Rather, critics point to a RAND Corporation report that shows that the privately managed schools performed no better—but no worse—than other schools in the district. A major short-coming of this analysis, however, is the failure to account for the fact that the privately managed schools were among the lowest performing in the city before the takeover—an overwhelming majority of students were scoring “below-basic” on the state’s reading and math tests.A more thorough analysis of Philadelphia’s privately managed schools by Harvard University’s Dr. Paul Peterson found something different. In comparing “apples to apples,” Peterson’s research found that privately managed schools in Philadelphia had generally greater gains in PSSA scores than district schools as a whole and the ORS schools particularly, which serve similar student populations.Peterson looked at gains in the percentage of students at or above “basic” and “proficient” levels in reading and math. He compared scores on fifth-grade and eighth-grade PSSA scores for two cohorts (those that went from 5th-grade to 8th-grade between 2002-2005 and 2003-2006). The findings were significant (see table below).Change in Percentage at or above “Basic” between the 5th and 8th Grade

  School District of Philadelphia Privately-Managed Office of Restructured Schools (ORS)
Math 20.6 29.5 16.4
Reading 12.5 16.4 20.8
Math 14.6 22.8 11.7
Reading 16.6 25.2 14.5

Source: Peterson, Paul. PEPG Report 07-03,, critics of the SRC and private managers refuse to acknowledge any positive impact the privately managed schools may have had on other district schools. Competition among schools, as in the marketplace, drives improvements in quality. Even the authors of the RAND report praised the Philadelphia district leadership, including the private managers, for overall gains in test scores.Yet vested interests continue to attack the private managers. A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article cites a “confidential study” by the district concluding that the public-private partnerships have failed. This conclusion ignored improvements in these schools and did not compare them to schools with similar student demographics. Additionally, the “confidential study” relied heavily on teachers—rather than parents—and “consulted with” the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).” Public school employee labor unions, including the PFT, have consistently and vehemently opposed private managers in education, regardless of their value or performance credentials.The evidence reveals that privately managed schools in Philadelphia have helped improve test scores in the city’s public schools. There is still a long way to go, as too many school children are still not receiving the quality education they deserve. But rather than eliminate private managers in the district—a proven program producing tangible results—the Philadelphia School Reform Commission should remove counter-productive restrictions on these schools and give them—and the parents choosing them—more freedom to develop the schools Philadelphia children need.# # # Nathan A. Benefield is Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.