Much to learn from Hutchinson tenure

Last week, a bold experiment in educational administration came to an end when Public Strategies Group Inc. ended its tenure with the Minneapolis School District. Nearly three and a half years after being hired by the district to raise test scores and create financial stability, the firm’s director, Peter Hutchinson, said it had completed its mission. And so ended the first attempt in the United States to place a big-city school district under the direction of a private company.
By most accounts, the Hutchinson team gets fair reviews for its effort to reform the beleaguered school district. Public Strategies Group reformed a system that was in deep financial trouble. Moreover, test scores for poor and minority students, as well as teacher morale, show signs of improvement. On the other hand, Hutchinson’s firm received an F last year from the school board’s chairman, and the group is pulling out before the end of its contract.
The company’s premature departure will most likely fuel the debate over the quality of secondary education in Minnesota. The Minnesota Legislature already is engaged in a struggle over the proposed use of public money to pay for a private education. In the case of the Minneapolis school system, reformers have a chance to evaluate the prudence of replacing traditional educational administrators with private firms. Clearly, the stakes are changing in education, and alternatives are being explored.
Hutchinson claims his firm’s tenure was a success; detractors, meanwhile, say his vague explanation for quitting will leave the public more frustrated about the state of urban education. Either way, it’s evident school board members were not satisfied with the leadership provided by traditional administrators. Regardless of the private firm’s actual achievements, the school board must be applauded for taking a calculated risk in an effort to improve the quality of education for Minneapolis youth.
The debate could become an ugly turf war between proponents of traditional educational administration and reformers who believe in the power of market incentives. That would be unfortunate, however, because many things can be learned from the Hutchinson experiment. The company focused on student achievement, and challenged teachers to raise their standards. It brought fiscal responsibility to a troubled district. In the end, however, its long-term impact is unclear.
The Minnesota Legislature is about to engage in a special session about the foresight of giving low-income families tax credits to pay for private school educations. Gov. Arne Carlson continues to bash teachers’ unions. And Twin Cities residents are dissatisfied with low urban test scores. Clearly, new methods must be explored and the strengths of traditional administration will have to be merged with new — perhaps incentive-based — techniques.
The Minneapolis school board’s experiment ended prematurely, but it probably isn’t the last time a district will turn to a private company to get its house in order. Public education is going through a crisis, and new ideas will be put forth. It is what we learn about educational administration from the Hutchinson era that may be its most significant contribution.