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Legitimating Privatization

The Politics of Sylvan Support Centers in the Baltimore Public School


Betty Malen, Rebecca McAndrew, and Donna Muncey


The Sylvan organization was able to gain and retain a foothold in the Baltimore
Public School System despite resistance surrounding privatization.

Main Points:

• Establishing a foothold in Baltimore was a critical test of Sylvan’s capacity

to capture a meaningful market share of what is now referred to as
supplemental service delivery.

• The chapter focuses on the political strategies that contributed to the

adoption, retention, and legitimation of this high-stakes venture.

• The Baltimore school board contracted Sylvan Learning Systems for

tutorial services for Chapter 1 public school students.

• The authors suggest that this case study illuminated important aspects of
a broader phenomenon, namely, the complex process through which
particular types of organizations might establish and maintain legitimacy in
new markets and challenging environments.


• Throughout the 1990’s, the Baltimore Public School system, like other
urban public school systems, was plagued by chronic resource shortages,
complex educational demands, and intense pressures to improve school

• The system as a whole was not doing well on broadly publicized indicators
of school performance.

• The Sylvan contract authorized an initiative that concentrated on providing

supplemental services to select groups of students in six schools.

• Sylvan executives and supporters developed strategies that helped make

privatization palatable in a context that was challenging the effectiveness
and the propriety of privatization experiments in the city’s public school

Political Strategies:
• Private Negotiations with Local Elites: In April 1992, Sylvan responded to
Baltimore school system’s request for proposals to provide Chapter 1
services for nonpublic school students who were under contract for those
services with the Baltimore public school system. Although Sylvan
executives did not win this bid, they did secure access to school officials
and influentials.

• Multiple Efforts to Preempt Opposition: Sylvan provided employment

opportunities for retired and current teachers and promised that the
company would not supplant public school teachers with other Sylvan

• Continuous Campaigns to Cultivate Support: The superintendent and

Sylvan executives, with the full support of the mayor, coordinated a public
relations campaign to legitimate the Sylvan program with internal and
external audiences. The program underwent an external evaluation and
Sylvan invested in the community, which helped take the edge off the for-
profit character of Sylvan’s work in schools.

Sylvan’s Longevity in the Baltimore Context:

• Key Sources of Organizational Legitimation: Regulatory, normative, and

cultural-cognitive pillars of social institutions.

• Alignment of Privatization Initiatives with Pillars of Social Institutions:

○ Alignment with the regulatory pillar: directs attention to society’s

regulatory systems, to the formal and informal rules that govern
what organizations can do and to the monitoring and enforcement
mechanisms that may be invoked to ensure compliance with these
○ Alignment with the normative pillar: directs attention to society’s
normative systems, including the values, expectations, beliefs, and
prescriptions that undergird conceptions of worthy ends and the
appropriate means of pursuing those ends.
○ Alignment wit the cultural-cognitive pillar: directs attention to widely
and deeply held assumptions about social realities, roles, and

• This study generated unanticipated findings about the manner in which the
specific strategies used to enact, implement, and continue that partnership
may be manifestations of a broader dynamic, namely the legitimation of an
organization that sought to privatize instructional services in public school

Discussion Questions:

1. Could you ever for see a similar situation happening in your school

2. By partnering with Sylvan, do you think the Baltimore Public School

System admitted to not being able to meet the needs of every student?