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GAO NOTES FEATURES OF PRIVATELY RUN SCHOOLS

Some students got greater access to computers and one-on-one instruction, but test scores didn't rise in schools managed last year by private companies, a General Accounting Office report says.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a report this week about the early experiences of districts that hired private companies to help run public schools in Baltimore; Minneapolis; Hartford, Conn.; and Dade County, Fla. The report was requested by Sens. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa.The report reviews the Minneapolis-based Educational Alternatives Inc.'s contract to manage nine and eventually 12 schools in Baltimore, a 32-school district in Hartford and one school in Dade County.

It also discusses a contract the St. Paul, Minn.-based Public Strategies Group had to provide leadership to the Minneapolis School District and help improve test scores, attendance and reduce suspensions.

In Minneapolis, for example, district officials reported slight improvements in attendance and lower suspension rates, the report said. But they said the decrease in suspensions resulted from a change in how student discipline is managed.

In Dade County, students had more access to computers and individualized instruction and attendance rose.

In Hartford, school buildings were repaired and EAI installed more computers, copiers and fax machines.

Baltimore schools were refurbished, lighting was upgraded, computers were installed and teaching assistants helped provide one-on-one instruction.

"Despite the positive impact of private management efforts, one measure of student outcome - scores on standardized achievement tests - did not substantially improve in Baltimore, Dade County and Minneapolis," the report said.

Testing information was not available in Hartford.

EAI President Philip Geiger expressed concern that the baseline for determining academic performance of the Baltimore students was spring 1992, rather than spring 1993.

After signing a contract to run the schools in July 1992, the company focused on safety concerns and physical improvements to school buildings, he said. It had to battle staff resistance that hampered efforts to improve teaching techniques, Geiger said.

EAI believes the spring 1993 testing data would have been a more accurate baseline, but GAO officials said it used the spring 1992 scores because they provided a benchmark of student performance immediately before EAI started to manage the schools in the fall of 1992.

Stephanie Lightfoot, president of the Board of Education in Hartford where EAI faced public opposition, said that although the private company did buy new computers and improve school buildings, the investments focused only on a few of the district's 32 schools.

"It was EAI who suggested that it prioritize its efforts in only six schools (only five of which were ever completed) in order to achieve showcase results quickly, as a strategy to build community support," Lightfoot said in a written response to the report.

Although EAI increased the number of computers in Hartford, this did not give each student greater access to computers because they were added to only five of the 32 schools in the district, she wrote.

Contracts were terminated in Baltimore and Hartford. The Dade County contract expired in June 1995. The Minneapolis contract remains in effect until December.