Moving Out of State

Last year Randle Richardson, the head of CEP, told the Press that within five years he hoped to have a dozen schools nationwide. To date he has four: three in Texas and one in Philadelphia, but CEP is working hard to change that. A check of state records shows that in Florida alone, there are seven registered lobbyists for CEP. Richardson declined to respond to Press questions about where CEP is negotiating for new schools now.

Republican ties to CEP are legendary. In 1998 former president George Bush christened its second school. The Nashville-based CEP was created by some politically connected Tennesseans who were former Republican Party chairmen for that state. And of course Rod Paige, as secretary of education, now works for the biggest Republican of all, President George W. Bush.

These connections make it easier for CEP to get its foot in the door at any school district. Still, not all has been smooth sailing for the organization's expansion plans. CEP is resilient, though, and having negotiations fall through once doesn't mean they are over forever. For example:

• Kansas City, Missouri, came close to having a contract with CEP, but in the middle of negotiations in May 1999, CEP withdrew. The company "just got fed up," then-school board president John Rios told the Kansas City Star. CEP had to reach an agreement among the administration, the board (which had already voted to hire it) and District Judge Dean Whipple's Desegregation Monitoring Committee. Unlike Houston's Gayle Fallon, the president of the Kansas City Teachers Union told the board that her membership was "overwhelmingly opposed" to the district employing a private company.

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Last spring the superintendent reconsidered CEP, so two Kansas City school board members flew to Houston and spent a morning at Ferndale.

"I just remember how quiet it was," says Elma Warrick, one of the school board members. She doesn't know if the silence is a plus or a minus. She was concerned, however, by how isolated the students seemed. But if their home life was chaotic, she rationalized that CEP's structured setting could be considered "a refuge" for them. "I went away with good feelings," Warrick says.

But, she says, she's not an educator; her fellow board member, Duane Kelly, taught for 33 years and didn't leave as heartened. "I would be bored stiff teaching there," he says. "I don't like things that tight and structured. My kids were a little freer. But they were a little more dependable. Of course, school has to teach that. You practice it there."

The whole idea of a corporate school concerns Kelly. "I've got deep reservations to running a school and making money on it," he says. He's heard horror stories of for-profit schools where principals get large salaries but teachers are paid squat, kids don't have their own books but share a classroom set to save cash, and oversized classrooms cut down on teachers. He worried that CEP would do the same. "It's hard to run an organization that teaches democracy in a dictatorial fashion," he says. "You're running north and south at the same time. Kids are hugely turned off. I couldn't run a class like that and make it work; it's hard to see how you could run a school like that and make it work."

The board never took a vote on CEP and decided to continue with the local alternative education. "We can do the same thing," Kelly says. "Our schools, they work."

• In Florida, negotiations with the Palm Beach County School Board ground to a halt when CEP ran through how much it charges, says Senator Ron Klein. But now that school board is reconsidering because CEP lobbyists pushed to get $4.8 million in the state budget for school systems to contract with private corporations to educate disruptive and low-performing students.

CEP lobbyists admitted to The News Herald of Panama City that they pushed for the bill and that the language in it meant CEP was pretty much the only school that could qualify. For example, the school has to be able to serve a minimum of 500 students (which is the magic number CEP contracts start at), it needs at least three years of experience serving similar students elsewhere and must have demonstrated progress in reading and math in the existing programs.

James McAllister, superintendent of the Bay District Schools in Panama City, plans to tour Houston's CEP campuses. He's read the brochure and he's impressed with CEP's academic results, but he wants to see if the school looks like boot camp. He's also concerned about the 180-day stay -- he wants students to return to their home school once they're back on grade level. McAllister doesn't have enough students to fill the school, so he would have to borrow badly behaving kids from surrounding counties.

• In Philadelphia no one at the district will talk about CEP. "We are in discussions regarding relocating and expanding the existing school," says Alexis Moore, executive director of communications for the School District of Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has nothing but glowing reports about CEP. The Inquirer says that after only six months educators saw an increase in attendance, low student turnover and improved academic effort.

The company was hired last year "at the urging of state officials," and the state subsidizes the program, paying $6,200 per student on top of the district's $6,900. CEP earns a bonus if attendance increases, and gets "sanctions" if it drops.

In May the Philadelphia CEP reached its capacity of 300 students and is now negotiating moving to a new location where it plans to expand to 1,000 students.

• Last month the Allentown School District north of Philadelphia was considering CEP. The superintendent made a visit to Ferndale, and a newspaper reporter tagged along and wrote a glowing report. But two weeks later the district found a far cheaper company called Communities in Schools.

CEP "said the time was not right for them to come to Allentown," board President Louis Liebhaber told the Allentown Morning Call. "It just wasn't in the cards."

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