Public school privatization: the decision in Baltimore

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Virginia Tech

This is a case study of the decision in Baltimore City Schools to privatize some of their schools. This study investigated the reasons why this decision was made and how it was made. The Garbage Can Model of decision making (Cohen and March, 1986) was used as a way of organizing the study. The single case study method was used to examine this decision. The issue of privatization is somewhat new and controversial. It is also one in which there ts relatively little written in the literature. While there is much written on decision making models in general, non-rational models, such as the Garbage Can Model, are not often used to examine the decision making process. This study depended largely on information gathered from interviews of participants who were active in the decision making process in Baltimore and also on the examination of relevant documents. Participants were asked a series of prepared questions which were based on the components of the Garbage Can Model. Those questions focused on the problems, solutions, participants, and choice opportunities which were in the system at the time the decision was made. The superintendent, board members, city council members and other key participants were interviewed in the first round of interviews. The second round of interviews was largely from names obtained in the first round.

The data gathered was reduced, organized according to the streams of the Garbage Can Model, and displayed in tables and matrices. The conclusion presents the findings in terms of the Garbage Can Model and reveals the factors which influenced the making of this controversial decision.

The findings of the study support the theory of Cohen & March (1986) that educational organizations often make decisions in ambiguity and that the Garbage Can Model can help explain the decision making process used in such organizations. The decision in Baltimore was made by the mayor and the superintendent without significant input from other participants or groups. The school district's problems and potential solutions were noted. Recommendations for school districts interested in contract management of schools are included.