Reading, Writing, And Rancor

Beverly Hillman can't pin down exactly when or why Turner Elementary School hit the skids. In the '70s, she says, her daughter got a good education at the highly ranked school in the Pittsburgh suburb of Wilkinsburg. But as the local steel industry died and Wilkinsburg grew poorer, Hillman has been frustrated by the school's deterioration. The last straw came when two boys beat up her 8-year-old granddaughter in an empty hallway. "They just let those kids sit there and ferment," complains Hillman.

Now, however, Hillman is convinced that Turner is in for a turnaround. Last spring, the Wilkinsburg school board hired a fledgling private company, Alternative Public Schools Inc., of Nashville, to run it. APS, co-founded in 1992 by financial consultant John Eason, has tapped leading educators to devise a new program for Turner. Its approach is largely based on a program developed by Elaine Mosley, former principal of an innovative inner-city school in Chicago who now is taking over as principal of Turner. The project--the APS's first--stresses a longer school year and study programs tailored to each of Turner's 400 students. APS also fired Turner's 24 teachers and hired, at comparable pay, its own 26-member staff.

The changes at Turner Elementary have implications for education that go far beyond the town of Wilkinsburg. Indeed, cities and states across the country are fiercely debating the role of teachers' unions and private companies in public schools. Other school districts in cities such as Baltimore and Hartford have also hired private companies to administer existing school systems. But Wilkinsburg is the first district to give over an entire school's curriculum and staff to a private company.

POWERFUL PALS. The local union, the Wilkinsburg Education Assn., views Turner's privatization as a mortal threat and is suing to kill the initiative. The case is scheduled to come before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Sept. 18. "They want to bust the union," says Pennsylvania Education Assn. Field Director Edward W. Christy, "and they're hiding behind the issue of improving the schools." Even if the union loses its court battle, it hopes to win control of the school board in elections this fall and then rescind the contract.

But the Wilkinsburg school board has powerful supporters. One is Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, who's pushing hard for a school-voucher system in the state. And the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., is paying all the board's legal bills. The teachers are backed by the state chapter of the National Education Assn., the nation's largest labor union, which is also funding the campaign to unseat the school board and subsidizing grassroots opposition to the Turner plan.

As the politics rage, APS is scurrying to win community support. Without increasing Turner's $2 million budget, the company is extending the school year to 11 months and lengthening the day: Kids can stay at Turner from breakfast at 7 a.m. through special activities ending at 6 p.m. That means more contact with teachers and fewer idle hours on the mean streets of Wilkinsburg. In addition to long hours, the new teachers are expected to knock on doors throughout the district, establishing ties with parents and--equally important--winning political support for the Turner initiative.

Sounds like a tough job? That's the idea, says APS President Eason. He maintains that if teachers know their jobs hinge on parents' satisfaction, they'll work longer and harder. In time, he expects many private companies, including APS, to bid for school contracts throughout the country, generating a market-driven revolution in education.

But the teachers' union charges that the Wilkinsburg board is blaming deep social problems, from poverty to white flight, on teachers. What's more, privatization opponents claim that by firing the 24 teachers at Turner and replacing them with younger ones, mostly from outside the borough, the board is severing Turner's roots in the community.

Even if the experiment at Turner survives court and local challenges, the new teachers face a series of daunting hurdles, from lifting test scores to improving discipline. Otherwise Turner's private educators will be facing both angry parents and angry employers.


FIRE teachers and hire its own, economizing by blending teachers with lower-paid aides

EXPAND school year from 180 days to 212

PEG teachers' pay to performance

DESIGN its own curriculum; offer special programs before and after school

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