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Outsourcing Public Education: Things Fall Apart With The Incremental Privatization of NYC Public Schools

Edwize has obtained a copy of the RFP [Request for Proposal] for “Partnership School Support” that the New York City Department of Education has hidden from the general public in a remote precinct of its website accessible only to private vendors with passwords. In it one finds the details of one of the central components of the latest structural reorganization Chancellor Klein want to impose on New York City public schools.

What is remarkable about the RFP is the general plan to outsource to these private ‘partnership’ entities virtually all of the educational support functions traditionally fulfilled, for better or for worse, by the DOE. Instructional program, professional development, special education: all of these and more will now be organized and supported by the Partnerships. And in contrast to the current intermediaries such as New Visions and Urban Assembly, this RFP invites ‘for profit’ EMOs [Educational Maintenance Organizations, modeled after Health Maintenance Organizations or HMOs] like Edison Schools and Victory Schools to become Partnerships.

Corporate outsourcing operates generally on the theory that an organization should focus on its core mission, and turn over ancillary functions which are not central to its work to other institutions to run. Applied to education, such a theory would have an entity like the Department of Education outsourcing functions like transportation, food services and facilities, in order to focus on what is central to its mission, teaching and learning. One could argue that the DOE need not have top of the line luxury buses moving children or serve the most nutritious, most appealing food in its school cafeterias, and so could afford to outsource such services, but that it needs to provide world class, quality education in its classrooms.

But what the DOE proposes to do here is the inverse of this corporate model of outsourcing. They are taking the core mission of the Department of Education — the promotion of excellent teaching and learning which is at the center of any education worthy of that name — and are outsourcing it. Such a move is a tacit admission that those who make the decisions at Tweed are themselves incapable of providing educational leadership. They lack the most elemental understanding of how the world of instruction works, and so propose structural change upon structural change, with every one avoiding the substance of teaching and learning like it were the plague. If anything, they fear educational expertise, for it exposes their own lack of knowledge and leadership: just look at an organizational strategy which has systematically purged professional educators from the top echelons of the Department of Education. With this week’s retirement of Rose DePinto, in part a reaction to yet another structural revolution bringing more institutional chaos and instability, there remains in the inner councils of Tweed literally a single educator who knows what it takes to teach real classes and lead real schools — Eric Nadelstern, the last of the educational Mohicans. There is a sort of perverse logic to turning over to private entities what the current leadership at Tweed is so clearly incapable of doing itself, as a result of its own design.

The permanent revolution of endless structural reorganizations brought to us by Chancellor Klein has been bereft, from day one, of any educational vision and any instructional strategy for New York City schools. Instead, an obsession with structure — at its root, an obsession with power as an end in itself — has been the motivating spirit. The logic of this structure driven quest is the devolution not of educational decision making power and authority, but of accountability. The goal is to divest the Chancellor and the Department of Education of responsibility for what goes on in its own schools. Five years in charge, longer than any other Chancellor in two plus decades, and Joel Klein still blames everyone but himself for the shortcomings of New York City public schools. Now he wants to organize the entire school system around that political strategy of accountability and responsibility avoidance. A proper name for these perpetual organizational revolution and obsession with structure would be “Classroom Last.”

In this regard the details of the RFP are telling. Schools do not get to choose their partnerships — they can simply state their preferences, and the DOE makes the choices. Just as importantly, schools do not get to drop their partnerships if they find them useless or worse — only the DOE can do that. There is no system of accountability for the partnerships, no metrics by which their performance will be measured, no responsibility for their actual work in their schools — the best one can find is some vague language of how the DOE will canvas the schools to obtain their opinion on the quality of services provided. Most significantly, there is no responsibility and accountability for the Department of Education in Klein’s brave, new world. It turns over all of its educational support functions to the partnerships, and leaves for itself only the training of principals [the Leadership Academy], the setting of standards, the operation of the accountability system and actual decision making authority. All responsibility, all accountability rests with the schools.

This educational dystopia, one which Klein promoted in the recent Tough Choices, Tough Talks report, would remake public education in the image of what the Bush administration and the Louisiana Governor have done to the post-Katrina New Orleans public schools. The results in New Orleans should give anyone who cares about the education of children – and especially, children living in poverty who are at most risk for academic failure – serious pause about conducting more experiments in this vein. Make no mistake about it: we are clear that the management of our public schools needs to be reformed, and that real decision making power needs to be devolved to the schools, in the hands of school leaders, teachers, and parents. We need real empowerment of schools, not rhetorical empowerment smokescreens. We need public schools accountable to the public, not outsourced to private entities in a perpetual deferral of accountability by its top leadership. Klein’s “Classroom Last” will not accomplish these ends, but only make matters worse. It — and the New Orleans public schools — is a world perhaps best captured in the title of Chinua Achebe’s novel of post-colonial Africa, borrowed from a William Butler Yeats’ poem: The center can not hold. Things fall apart.

The way forward for New York City public schools is not putting up for sale the leadership of teaching and learning in New York City public schools. Rather, it is the replacement of a Chancellor of New York City public schools incapable of providing educational leadership with a Chancellor who can do precisely that. Since you can’t lead us in teaching and learning, Joel Klein, step aside for someone who can, someone who will accept responsibility and embrace accountability for himself and his administration, someone who will set about restoring the professional educational talent you have driven from the management of New York City public schools, someone who will empower New York City public schools to do their best.

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5 Comments:

  • 1 School Information System
    · Jan 28, 2007 at 8:00 am

    Notes on Outsourcing Public Education…

    Leo Casey:Edwize has obtained a copy of the RFP [Request for Proposal] for “Partnership School Support” that the New York City Department of Education has hidden from the general public in a remote precinct of its website accessible only to……

  • 2 Persam1197
    · Jan 28, 2007 at 10:01 am

    This is as much a danger to the public trust of educating our children as we’ve ever seen in generations. We as the UFT must do everything in our power to expose and oppose this Kleinberg fire sale.

    We must oppose mayoral control when it comes back for reauthorization. Looking at the senior management of the DOE, there are virtually no qualified folk running the show. There’s a reason why administrators should have valid credentials. Would a hospital have a chief resident without an MD? A law firm with partners without JD’s? It’s time for us to take a stand with “Children First” and “Every Child Gets Left Behind.”

    If Klein and his cronies can’t run the system, get rid of them all and put real educators in charge. Maybe teachers should be responsible for educating children? Hmmm.

  • 3 phyllis c. murray
    · Jan 28, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    Shared Decision Making is as American as Apple Pie
    By Phyllis C. Murray

    What every happened to the shared decision making process in education? Certainly, it is effective at the school level as an informed populace works toward improving teaching and learning within their school. The school leadership team in conjunction with parents, teachers, support staff, community members, and the principal are empowered to make decisions which impact the climate and culture of the school.

    Surely, federal, state and district mandates are observed. However what is paramount is that the needs of the students are identified and met. And since the team meets monthly, opportunities are afforded to fine-tune the programs implemented. Research also takes place as best-practices are examined. And assessments are ongoing. Changes are not dictated but agreed upon by the members of the representative team and faculty and community ( the stake holders) prior to implementation. Thus, all persons, who hold a vested interest in this public school have a voice. Such an approach seems to mirror democracy in action as the responsibility, rights, or powers are placed in the hands of the school. And if this can be done at the school level successfully, why aren’t educators and parents a part of the Board of Education’s team ? Why aren’t educators and parents full participants in a shared decision making process…especially when all the top to bottom and unilateral decisions are being planned and implemented? And lastly, why are educators and parents only informed in the media of unilateral changes which impact their lives and the lives all children in New York City Public Schools?

    Leo Casey is right:
    “Make no mistake about it: we are clear that the management of our public schools need to be reformed, and that real decision making power needs to be devolved to the schools, in the hands of school leaders, teachers, and parents. We need real empowerment of schools, not rhetorical empowerment smokescreens. We need public schools accountable to the public, not outsourced to private entities in a perpetual deferral of accountability by its top leadership…”

    Right on, Casey!

    Phyllis C. Murray
    UFT Chapter Leader
    Region 2 District 8

  • 4 Jackie Bennett
    · Jan 28, 2007 at 9:54 pm

    Thank you, Leo Casey, for a great post, enlightening especially on the fine print on the RFP’s, and clear in its presentation of the problem. Rarely at a loss for words, I find myself with nothing left to say!

  • 5 Jackie Bennett
    · Jan 29, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    Dare we take heart? Spitzer today in discussing the terms for state funding:

    “The agreements with districts will demand a serious reform plan that specifies the uses of any new funds, how current programs will be changed, and – very importantly – the improvement in educational performance the districts will achieve as a result. Such a plan will need to be developed in consultation with all the stakeholders that are involved in education in every district, including parents, teachers and administrators.”