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New Schools Test if Corporate Control Makes the Grade : Several communities across the nation are turning to private firms to improve instruction and trim costs.


MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — When Hurricane Andrew forced the Hirsch family from their house temporarily in 1992, they enrolled their daughters in South Pointe Elementary, the first of a new breed of experimental public schools being operated by private companies.

The family moved back to their more affluent neighborhood, but their daughters still travel to a blighted area of Miami Beach daily to attend South Pointe, where children learn at their own pace in an environment where competition is downplayed.

"I drive 50 miles a day to go to this school," said Dale Hirsch, the girls' mother, whose enthusiasm for South Pointe is so great that she is now the president of the Parents Teachers Assn. and a part-time employee there. "There's a sense of community that you don't have in traditional schools."

As parents and politicians search for alternatives to the public schools they feel are failing American children, they are looking more and more at hiring private, for-profit companies to modernize instruction and trim bureaucratic costs.

The pioneer in the broadening field is Minneapolis-based Education Alternatives Inc., which has a five-year contract with the Dade County, Fla., school system to help run South Pointe. The company also began running 11 schools in Baltimore last fall and is in negotiations with several school systems around the nation, including in San Diego, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., Hawaii and Portsmouth, Va.

Education Alternatives' approach is to save money on the administrative side of the budget by cutting non-teaching staff and by purchasing equipment and supplies more economically. The company's teaching techniques, which lean heavily on individualized instruction, are not revolutionary--but they are more costly because they require more teachers in each classroom and more support.

Walter G. Amprey, superintendent of Baltimore City Schools, is a believer. "The statistics show that we as educators have failed a generation of Americans," he said in testimony to a Senate subcommittee this week. "What we have created is an educational gridlock that would take forever to untangle."

Education Alternatives is doing what his office never could, he said.

"A private company has pierced the bureaucracy for me," he said, and has made the schools "look fantastic."

The subcommittee held the hearing to assess whether the federal government should support such public-private partnerships as a way to spearhead school reform, especially in urban centers.

"The status quo we know is bad," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who chaired the hearing. "If you get private management in the schools, it could make a big difference."

John T. Golle, Education Alternatives' chairman and chief executive officer, told the senators that he believes the public schools "have a moral and ethical responsibility" to provide a better education, especially to students from poor neighborhoods. "We believe we can be catalytic to systemic reform . . . without bankrupting the nation."

The Clinton Administration, which is trying to spur reform of public schools without spending much money, is cautiously supportive. "We don't have a problem with it as long as the goal is high standards for all students," said Thomas Payzant, an assistant secretary of education and former superintendent of schools in San Diego.

Yet not everyone is a fan. Many educators and taxpayers oppose allowing companies to earn profit--in taxpayer dollars--by running public schools.

"There is no evidence that private management in and of itself produces miracles or even decent results," Bella Rosenberg of the American Federation of Teachers said at the hearing. She also raised questions about claims that private companies, over the long run, will be able to perform without asking taxpayers for extra money.

In classroom after classroom on a recent morning at South Pointe, students were sitting at tables working on projects independently or in groups. Nowhere was a teacher simply lecturing. In each class, two or three students were working at computers.

"I like this school because we have the choice to go at our own pace," said Ryan Egozi, a fourth-grade student. "My goal was to finish the fourth-grade math book before the end of January, and I'm finishing up the last chapter."

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