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An inside call to fire 6 school managers

A confidential district study echoed outside reports that privatization has not worked. Contracts are up in June.

None of the six private groups hired to manage 41 Philadelphia public schools - including for-profit Edison Schools Inc. - has shown "sufficient" academic progress, and the district should consider axing them when their contracts expire in June, according to an internal school district report obtained by The Inquirer.

At best, only 14 - about a third - of the schools run by the groups deserve contract renewals, the report said. Those schools met federal targets for academic improvement in 2005, 2006 or both, according to the report.

The district has spent more than $107 million on contracts with two for-profit companies, two nonprofits, and two universities since 2002.

Heralded as a way to spur improvement by introducing competition, the privatization experiment became a cornerstone of the plan to overhaul the district's worst schools after the state takeover in December 2001.

But in recent months, two outside reports that looked at their five-year history said they had not lived up to high expectations. The district's internal team concurred with that analysis and said that if any managers were retained, they should be given only two-year contracts with an option for a third and be under strict requirements for improvement.

"There is little evidence that the substantial investment . . . has produced sufficient academic success to warrant continuation," said the report, prepared by a task force of 19 district employees at the behest of the School Reform Commission. The study group included several high-level administrators.

The task force based its recommendations on analysis of standardized-test scores; interviews and phone surveys with parents, teachers and principals; and input at seven community meetings. It also considered other school data, including attendance, behavior and violence, and teacher training.

The report was presented to the commission in a private session nearly two weeks ago, but the commission declined repeated requests from The Inquirer to make the report public.

The commission could vote on contract renewals for the six groups as early as May 29 - the day it expects to adopt its $2.18 billion budget, which still has a gaping deficit.

John Chubb, Edison's chief education officer, called the report "biased, intellectually dishonest and downright sloppy" in a letter to James Nevels, the commission's chairman.

Chubb said it failed to recognize that competition spurred by the groups had led to the district's overall test-score growth.

"The district is willing to bet that its dramatic improvements have had nothing to do with private partnerships and competition, and that is a reckless and irresponsible conclusion," he said in a telephone interview.

He also said the district should have compared the schools' progress in the last five years to the previous five years.

"The report - stunningly - makes no effort to compare how EMO schools performed in the years prior to our arrival," he wrote.

Edison should retain management rights over every school that is making progress - virtually all 20, he said.

Just how much weight the commission will give the report in making its decision is uncertain.

Nevels said Friday night that he was not ready to write off the outside groups and believed that more information was needed.

He said he was concerned that reports critical of the groups did not give them enough credit for raising test scores at their schools, the lowest-performing in the district. It is unfair to chastise the group for not producing more growth than the district's average, he said. Nevels said he believed rise in test scores at the privately managed schools was monumental, given the schools' underachievement before the state takeover.

"We're talking about the most difficult schools dramatically improving. That should be regarded as worthy in its own right," he said.

He also said the district report did not account for high student mobility, a common problem in high-poverty urban districts. Many of the students who started the year at the schools transferred out, while others moved in, making improvement difficult to sustain.

The staff report hits the groups hard for falling short on myriad issues, from safety to lack of books.

Principals and teachers in the schools expressed reservations.

"Most principals did not know how the extra money per child was spent and felt that the extra dollars had not made a big difference in academic outcomes," the report said.

"Some teachers expressed concern that principals were guided by their contractual concerns 'to get test scores up,' which put the teachers under a lot of pressure."

Safety also was cited as a major issue in all the schools run by the six groups. Only one-quarter of the teachers surveyed said they believed that schools offered a safe enough environment for learning. Suspensions were far greater at those schools: 67 per 100 students, compared with 34 per 100 students at district-managed schools. Absenteeism among teachers and students also was more of a problem at the outside-managed schools, the report said.

Parents surveyed expressed concerns, saying that "fights frequently occur" and that there is "a general lack of discipline in the schools," according to the report.

But nearly half the parents said they thought the privately managed schools were better off than before the takeover.

Teachers at Victory Schools Inc. and Edison schools complained about a lack of resources, such as books and paper.

"Schools are still waiting for math books," the report said.

Of the 14 schools recommended for keeping in private hands, seven are run by Edison: Alcorn, Barratt, Hartranft, Kelley, McMichael, Sulzberger and Waring. Two schools, Fulton and Kinsey, are run by Foundations Inc., and two more, Pratt and Wright, are operated by for-profit Victory Schools. Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Universal Cos. each operate one: Meade, Wilson and E.M. Stanton, respectively.

The task-force analysis included a survey of 33 principals and 884 teachers at the schools. It also included a sampling from district schools as a comparison. Nearly 200 parents largely chosen at random were surveyed by phone, while others offered comment at community meetings. Members of the teachers' union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, were also consulted.