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WNY BRACES FOR FIRST TASTE OF FOR-PROFIT SCHOOLING

Along with charter schools, Western New York is about to have its first encounter with another controversial national trend -- deep involvement by profit-making firms in classroom teaching and learning.

Public schools here already hire private companies to provide student transportation, cafeteria services and supplies. In Niagara Falls, Honeywell Corp. of Minneapolis is building a $73 million high school that it will manage and lease back to the district.

But the role of for-profit businesses is about to reach far beyond that, and right into some classrooms.

The South Buffalo Charter School -- which is working with a corporate partner -- last week was one of three local groups chosen by the state as finalists to open charter schools next September.

If that happens, Beacon Education Management -- along with a governing board of local organizers -- will be responsible not only for financial, legal and facilities issues, but also for hiring a principal and teachers, for staff development and for curriculum.

In other words, a management firm will be largely responsible for what children learn, how they learn it and whom they learn it from.

"I see what we do as very similar to what a public school district would be doing for its school board," said Michael B. Ronan, chief operating officer for the Boston-based firm and a former public school superintendent in Massachusetts. "There literally is no difference."

The South Buffalo school would enroll about 235 pupils in kindergarten through grade 4, and probably would be located on Trocaire College's Choate Avenue campus. Through Beacon, it plans to offer an extended school day and school year, have clearly defined year-to-year expectations for pupils that exceed state standards, and place a heavy emphasis on character education.

But even in states where for-profit groups already operate, some think they simply don't belong.

"I don't trust any institution that's out to make a buck from governing schools," said Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, in Boston. "It's inherently in conflict. They're always going to be searching for ways to cut costs."

In the Buffalo area, Beacon probably will not be alone. Six other Buffalo-area charter school applicants would contract with management firms. While those six groups were not recommended by a state screening agency for September openings, many of them are expected to revise their applications and seek charters to open later.

In the meantime, the South Buffalo Charter School will give privatization new meaning in Western New York. Though a contract is still being worked out, organizers expect to pay Beacon about 10 percent of their public funding for soup-to-nuts management services.

"For all the things we have to do, having the backing of a professional management firm makes me much more comfortable," said Christopher Jacobs, an organizer of the school. "But we're still the board. The charter's still with us."

Without a management firm, South Buffalo organizers would have to strike separate deals with accountants, lawyers, teachers and administrators, real estate agencies and providers of equipment and supplies, said Matt Enstice, a member of the school's board.

"Instead, we know these people," he said of Beacon Management. "We can look them right in the eye. It's all about our relationship with this group."

Beacon operates 25 schools in five states and has been in business since 1992. It is privately held and declines to discuss corporate balance sheets.

Not everyone welcomes the group to New York. Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said the union will lobby the State Legislature to exclude for-profit firms from getting involved in publicly funded schools here.

"It's really a sad commentary that they're going to allow people to come in and make money at the expense of the public school system," Rumore said. "They'll profit on the backs of poor people who need it desperately."

Others view for-profit firms as valuable allies for charter school organizers.

"Charters are very much of a mom-and-pop-driven, little-expertise type of thing," said Katherine K. Merseth, who teaches a graduate course on charter schools at Harvard University and is a former public school administrator. "For-profits have done it before, they've got the boilerplate, and they know how to deal with the problems that come up."

Merseth suggests that New Yorkers view for-profits with an open mind.

"If you can deliver me a child who is proficient on the New York State Regents, I'll give you 8 percent to do that," she said. "I think the incentive for the for-profit to find a way to do it is so much greater than it is for a public bureaucracy."

Involving for-profits in charter schools is probably no riskier than trusting school district administrators, said Jerome T. Murphy, dean of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

"There are likely to be some shysters out there, but there is a lot of poor quality in the public schools, too," he said.

Some for-profit firms, such as Beacon, charge a set fee. Others, including Edison Schools, manage the public funds that flow to charter schools, and make a profit only when revenues exceed expenses. Edison, a New York City firm founded in 1991, has yet to make a corporatewide profit.

Organizers of a proposed Information Technology School in Orchard Park plan to hire Edison to help establish and operate a K-through-8 school where pupils would learn to manage local area networks, program Web sites, apply technology to their academic courses, and take part in interships at local information technology firms.

That school was not recommended by the state for a September opening, but will probably continue to pursue a charter, said Jack Boyczuk, an organizer.

"Establishing a school isn't something you do every day, and Edison has the experience of doing it across the country," said Boyczuk, president of Great Lakes Electronic Distributing Inc. "They've got the expertise at tackling a project and pulling it off."

Orchard Park School Superintendent Charles Stoddart said he welcomes educational alternatives, but urges families to take a hard look at new charter schools and their for-profit partners.

"You have to put your faith in the people who say they can deliver the program," he said. "If they can't, they better get out of the business fast."

In Buffalo, a group that hopes to open a charter school for immigrant and refugee children decided to proceed without for-profit assistance.

"We really think that because we're dealing with a very specific population, we want to choose our own curriculum," said Lucinda R. Kahler, an organizer of Assimilation Services Program for Immigrant and Refugee Empowerment, or ASPIRE. "And I hate to say this, but we really feel we want the money to go to the kids and not the management company."

Two of the local schools that are finalists are planning to operate independently; the South Buffalo group would contract with Beacon.

Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said this will give the Buffalo area an opportunity to compare for-profit management schools with other charter schools going it alone.

"The fact that we have a mix will tell us whether for-profit involvement is worth it or not," he said.

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