A company paid to run more than 30 Philadelphia public schools argued in court last week that it is not responsible for enforcing safety measures, prompting national education experts to question the validity of public-private arrangements for struggling schools.
The family of a student who was raped by a classmate at Stetson Middle School in 2004 sued Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit company that was given control of 32 Philadelphia schools in 2002, for failing to provide adequate security.
The trial ended June 27, and Edison subsequently agreed to a settlement with the victim’s family. But Edison’s initial defense has prompted renewed scrutiny of school privatization efforts nationwide.
The 11-year-old student accused of the rape pleaded guilty to the charge. The crime was committed during the school day in a part of Stetson Middle School that was not monitored by faculty or staff.
Stetson, a public school, was under Edison’s control from 2002 until the end of the 2007-08 academic year, when it became one of three schools taken back by the Philadelphia School District. Contracting with Edison—which operates in 19 states and Washington, D.C.—to run city schools was a result of failing to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards for several consecutive years.
The Philadelphia school system declined to comment on the case. An Edison spokesman would not comment beyond issuing the following statement: "The parties have agreed to settle the case for an undisclosed amount to allow the company and the family to move on and put the matter behind them."
Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom—which advocates for private school vouchers and other school-choice programs—said he was unfamiliar with the Philadelphia schools’ contract with Edison, but he added that ambiguous wording could give both sides a legitimate argument in the debate over who ultimately was responsible for security in the schools.
"It was very unclear where the public [school system] was in charge and [where Edison Schools] was in charge. Both sides have a very plausible argument for why [security] wasn’t their job," said McCluskey, author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education. "It’s entirely possible Edison thought [its] job was to manage the curriculum, but not to provide overall safety in the school. … This case appears to be a reflection of that confusion."
During opening arguments June 24, an attorney for Edison said the company was only responsible for teacher training and educational programs used in each school. Security officers, faculty, and administrators were still employees of the Philadelphia school district, meaning they—and not Edison—ultimately were responsible for the safety of students on school grounds, the attorney argued.
The victim, who was then 12 years old, was raped on Nov. 16, 2004, after an altercation in a school bathroom. The two boys climbed to a third-floor fire tower, where the crime occurred. The perpetrator told the victim he would be killed if he told anyone about the rape, but the victim told Stetson teachers later that day. Near the end of 2004, a Philadelphia school official met with representatives from Edison Schools to express concern in safety shortcomings at some schools.
John Donahue, director of the Weil Program on Collaborative Governance a`t Harvard University and author of the 1989 book The Privatization Decision, said companies given control of schools should take responsibility for daily operations—but public school officials should make terms of the agreement clear before final contracts are signed.
"To the extent Edison was in control of what went on at the school, it would be inefficient and irresponsible for it to be shielded from liability," Donahue said. He added, however, that "public officials cannot escape blame" after handing control of schools to private companies.
"Obviously, it would have been in everybody’s interest to have a clearer and more fully specified contract here—including contractual clarity about dealing with matters that aren’t fully spelled out in the contract," Donahue said.
McCluskey, who has followed the court case closely, said the outcome could change the way school district leaders and private companies negotiate with each other.
"The first fallout would be that when other contracts are made, they’ll be explicit about who will be responsible for what," he said. "It has to be made much more clear across the board who is in charge of what. … It has to be more of an all-or-nothing proposition."
In a decision that might or might not have anything to do with the Stetson case, Edison officials on July 1 announced a company name change: from now on, the firm will be known as EdisonLearning. The company also acquired coursework provider Provost Systems Inc., whose service will allow students and parents to access benchmarks, homework, and grades online.
Edison said in a press release that its acquisition of Provost will help the company compete with others in the burgeoning online learning market.