As the city re-thinks school support, partnerships deserve more scrutiny

A largely unknown and expensive network of private management organizations has a significant role in running hundreds of New York City public schools. These “Partnership Support Organizations” provide supervision, help with instruction, and even have a role in principal selection for regular elementary, middle, and high schools.

But finding out whether these organizations are doing their jobs well, or efficiently, is no easy task. Though the city oversees and releases data about the individual schools and networks overseen by the PSOs, they don’t release information about PSOs themselves. That insulates those organizations, with independent boards of trustees populated by a who’s who of the city’s rich and powerful, from public debate and parental accountability.

This February, Hofstra University professor Catherine DiMartino wrote in the American Journal of Education that transparency, monitoring, accountability are key to constructive arrangements between school districts and private organizations. The PSOs have contracts or memoranda of understanding with the Department of Education, but the agreements are not widely available and the organizations have not been subject to comprehensive, published oversight by the Department of Education, the city Comptroller, or the Independent Budget Office.

Take The Urban Assembly, one of the first PSOs, which is now responsible for 21 schools and operates under a spare memorandum of understanding. Its latest publicly available tax filing from 2011 lists income of $4,209,875, of which 69 percent came from public sources. That year, its founder and CEO, Richard Kahan, made over $320,000, substantially more than the Chancellor’s salary. Yet about half its high schools now fall behind the average citywide graduation rate. On the key issue of parent accountability, while network leader contact information is regularly listed on each DOE school’s website, Urban Assembly schools list no phone number for their network leader (for example, see here), effectively preventing direct parent complaints. What are the lines of authority here?

This is not to denounce the achievements of Urban Assembly or other PSOs, all of which have high-achieving and low-achieving schools in their portfolios. But the PSOs are classified by the IRS as “publicly supported organizations” because they receive more than a third of their income from public sources.

For example, New Visions reported income in fiscal year 2012 of $20,105,893, 96 percent of which came from public sources. CEI-PEA reported $16,861,034 that year, with over 99 percent of its funding coming from public sources. Teaching Matters reported $5,791,412 in fiscal year 2010 with 57 percent public support. (Revenue figures weren’t available for CUNY, Fordham, and FHI 360, the city’s other PSOs.)

This is also not a call to disband this Bloomberg-era experiment in private management. But as the new administration takes a fresh look at the structure for school support, it is time for the Department of Education, government watchdogs, and the news media to subject PSOs to collective and individual scrutiny, though institutional audits and performance metrics.

The reasons are clear: This sector has responsibility for educating thousands of students, costs taxpayers millions, yet has a low public profile. Last year, The College Board simply abandoned the schools it partnered with in a different arrangement, causing instructional chaos.

If we are getting bang for the buck, then more such arrangements might be encouraged or similar public structures (and salaries) put into place to match PSO success. However, if PSOs, collectively or as individual organizations, are found wanting, then the city has an obligation to repurpose this vast expense for better educational outcomes no matter whose ox is gored.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a reference to Outward Bound, which partners with schools but is not a PSO. 

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