Philadelphia, where America's founders gathered to declare independence and defend liberty, has struck another blow for freedom—and one that could be nearly as historic. This spring Philadelphia's School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to privatize up to 75 of the city's 240 schools. The management of many of Philadelphia's worst- performing schools is to be turned over to seven not-for-profit or for-profit organizations—including the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Edison Schools, and Chancellor-Beacon Schools.
Although other cities have contracted with outside organizations for the management of schools, and many cities, including Philadelphia, have allowed independent charter schools to provide a measure of choice in public education, no city has come close to Philadelphia in "freeing up" the supply of public schools. This fall more than a quarter of the 200,000-plus students in Philadelphia will be served by public schools not under the district's direct control.
The importance of Philadelphia's decision cannot be overstated. Philadelphia has struggled to educate its young people. Roughly 60 percent of Philadelphia's students failed the state's reading and math exams, and more than a third dropped out of high school. Three-fourths of the city's schools are identified as low performing, meaning that more than half of a given school's students are failing. Efforts to improve the schools have yielded minimal progress. These statistics are not unique to Philadelphia. Every city in America is grappling with the same problems to some degree.
What is unique to Philadelphia is the response. In December 2001, the governor of Pennsylvania and the mayor of Philadelphia agreed to an increase in state funding for Philadelphia's schools and to transfer control of the school district from the local board of education to the SRC. That agreement also outlined plans to privatize a large number of the city's lowest-performing schools. The boldness of this lies not so much in the takeover of the district by the state—states have done this with schools numerous times—but in the takeover of school management by entities other than the state or the district.
During the past decade policymakers became persuaded that schools in general, and particularly schools in large urban systems, will not improve substantially until they are subjected to the pressures of competition. Policymakers recognize that they will never satisfactorily mandate school improvement from above; the school practices that need to change are too numerous and complex to legislate. Competition offers a mechanism that has worked virtually everywhere except education to promote improvements in quality and efficiency.
Competition has not worked in education because it has never really been tried. For the past 150 years public education has been provided by school districts with the exclusive right to operate public schools within their jurisdiction. In recent years policymakers have chipped away at this exclusive right with charter schools and voucher programs. But the Philadelphia story is different—its privatization initiative is large scale. Therein lies a historic opportunity to set a new course for America's public schools and to provide new hope for America's urban youth.