Morris Gandy’s son was a problem student throughout elementary school, playing hooky and acting up. A few days after he began sixth grade in 2002 at Gillespie Middle School in Philadelphia, he was suspended. Gandy, a single parent, beseeched the principal, “What can you do for a problem child?” He got no help.
Then a neighbor told him about Community Education Partners (CEP), an alternative school for kids like his son. So Gandy enrolled the boy, expecting that teachers there would know how to handle him. Instead, the situation went from bad to worse. “The teacher said my son shot him in the head with a rubber band,” Gandy said. “I said, ‘What are you going to do about it? This is supposed to be a school for troubled kids.'” His son told Gandy that all they did was watch movies. He went truant. “They are supposed to be the experts on the kids outside the box. They are supposed to get them back inside the box,” Gandy said. “They couldn’t hold his interest.”
Morris Gandy is what you’d call a dissatisfied CEP customer. CEP, however, continues to prosper. Founded ten years ago in Houston, the company entered the private-school market at a time when Texas was a roiling caldron of Republican politics and Enron-style corporate dealing–and a laboratory for education reform. George W. Bush was governor, the mantra was accountability for public schools and the tools were high-stakes testing and privatization. What emerged from the mix were the so-called Texas Miracle, which boosted student achievement; Rod Paige as President Bush’s Education Secretary; and ultimately Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, authored by Texas education player Sandy Kress.
The Texas Miracle has since been debunked as so much manipulation of test scores and phony graduation rates. Paige, who rode to the White House on its falsehoods, is history. And Bush’s NCLB is sagging under the weight of impossible test goals and unfunded mandates, with even some Republicans now criticizing it. But privatization in public education and the credo of accountability through testing still chug along.
CEP is one beneficiary. Despite a tarnished history and no independent evidence that its student-customers fare better than in regular public schools, CEP uses political clout to carve a niche market serving students the public schools don’t want, and it makes millions in the process. CEP’s story is a primer on how the politics of education reform serve business interests. Its success represents the triumph of free-market ideology over sound pedagogy and the fallacy of the accountability-through-testing approach to teaching. “It’s fair to say they [CEP] have avoided true scrutiny,” said Carl Shaw, a former Texas state official who evaluated CEP’s program. “Their modus operandi is political, not educational and not scientific.”
The CEP Program: Be Here, Be Tested
CEP contracts with public school districts in Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Richmond and Orlando, and in the Pinnellas and Bay districts in Florida, to run alternative schools for students in grades six through twelve who’ve been suspended for behavioral problems. Most students sent to CEP also are academically failing, and the vast majority are African-American and Latino. CEP’s contract requires that students spend 120-180 days in the program–far in excess of the typical ten-day suspensions public schools impose on misbehaving students. CEP’s rationale is that it needs time to transform kids’ behavior and academic performance, but the company also has an obvious financial incentive for a longer placement. CEP’s per-student charge varies by district, but it’s more than the districts spend per pupil on regular students. In Orlando CEP gets $8,865 per pupil, double the district’s own cost. Philadelphia pays CEP about $13,000 per pupil–almost twice the district’s $7,000 average cost. “We charge more. We’re a premium product,” said Randle Richardson, the CEO of CEP. “Anyone can warehouse a child.”