Schools Enter NYC Market
Whittle is not unfamiliar with controversy over the role of commercial
interests in education. As the President and CEO of Edison Schools,
the for-profit management company that he says will be running
139 schools across the country this fall, and previously, as the
founder of Channel One, a news service for schools, he has been
the center of a lot
of the criticism. However, he says that people focus too much
on the funding of Edison, and not enough on what he is doing for
is “the first national network of schools,” said Whittle
recently over the phone. “As I looked at public education,
what stunned me was how it was so fragmented,” he explained,
pointing out that there are about 15,000 school systems across
the country with an average of 3,000 students per system. “Small
[school] districts are unable to build state-of-the-art systems,”
he said. Edison, because of its reach, can provide for extensive
research and development.
was this infrastructure that attracted Eugene Wade, the CEO of
LearnNow, another management company, to a recent merger with Edison. “A
lot of LearnNow money was going into infrastructure that Edison
has already,” said Wade, now Executive Vice President of
Edison. Edison, for its part, acquired a competitor (“They
were destined to be No. 2 in the field,” said Whittle) as
well as an entry into the tough, but crucial New York City school
market—LearnNow will open the Harriet Tubman School this
fall in the Bronx. This comes on the heels of Edison’s defeat
in a parental vote against its taking over five failing NYC public
schools earlier this year.
runs two kinds of schools, charter and contract schools. Charter
schools are independent, startup schools, whereas contract schools
are existing schools taken over from a board of education.
the community organizing group that
mounted the most opposition, objected to the exclusive
deal between the Board of Education and Edison. “Whether
or not these schools wanted [to become] charter, they had no choice,”
said Bertha Lewis, Executive Director of Acorn. She would have
liked to see Edison apply for a charter “just like everyone
else”—just like LearnNow had done with Harriet Tubman.
“LearnNow did get into the neighborhoods,” said Lewis.
fascinating about New York’s [charter] law is that it puts
parents in the driver’s seat,”
said Wade. “The best school district in the country works
well because the ultimate consumer—the parent—is involved.”
Thus, it is to them that these management companies need to show
to Wade and Whittle, results are achieved by streamlining spending.
Even though Edison receives the same amount
of money from the district per child as other public
or charter schools, Edison can provide extras such as a
computer to each student and more class time, because, according
to Wade, “We spend money differently.”
Administration is on a national level and enables us to “put
more money into the classroom because of efficiencies.”
still, “to do something like we’re doing requires
an enormous amount of money,” explained Whittle. It is this
need for large amounts of start-up money that turned both Whittle
and Wade to the for-profit world. “We could not have raised
that amount philanthropically,” said Whittle of the half
billion dollars the company has raised in ten years. Wade, who
worked as a non-profit sector consultant before founding LearnNow,
agrees. He explained the improbability of getting the “substantial
investments up front,” to start a school in the South Bronx,
such as Harriet Tubman.
investors, the payback is student achievement. Edison’s
curriculum regularly tests students. According to Wade, tests
are a way to keep everyone on the same plane. “Without them,
what have you got?” he asked. “You have everyone walking
around being subjective saying ‘we’re doing good.’”
Edison’s own reports show the company has been successful
in raising scores throughout the country, many opponents question
the numbers. Whittle himself admits that there are “a handful”
of schools with which he is not happy, but he attributes this
to start-up years and occasional poor leadership. The best schools
have good, integrated leadership; a bad principal could be the
downfall of a good school, he explained. “A good principal
does not guarantee a good school,” he said. “But if
you have a bad principal, it guarantees a bad school.”
attempting to create high-performing schools, Edison and LearnNow
also have a goal of reforming public education. “We are
[school districts] to reexamine what they are doing,” said
Wade. In theory, high achieving Edison schools will create competition
for the students in the public school district. “The idea
is that the public schools will follow.”
says that this theory “starts with the wrong premise—that
they will provide a good education.” A vehement skeptics
of Edison’s record, Lewis points out that New York City
already has models of good schools—Hunter, Stuyvesant, Bronx
Science. “The competition is already there,” she said.
But there are still failing schools elsewhere.
this theory of competition is indeed true, how do Whittle and
Wade feel about creating a situation that will eventually make
their schools (and jobs) unnecessary? “We are a long ways
away from running ourselves out of business,” said Wade.
“We’ve got a crisis of underachievement. Hopefully,
we’ll be a part of the process of reforming education.”
sees a future in which “four or five very significant fortune
500 class entities” will be managing 20-25 percent of the
students in the country. “No one is going to have anywhere
near 100 percent, and I don’t think it would be good,”
merger with LearnNow will impact the company on the corporate
level, according to Wade, and will not affect the day-to-day lives
of the students in LearnNow schools, including Harriet Tubman,
which will continue to have a LearnNow curriculum (different from
Edison’s Success for All and Chicago Math).
raising student performance is a long and arduous job. “They
didn’t get the way they are in one year,” said Whittle
of the five schools that the Board of Education is now in charge
of reforming. “What’s going to change these schools
is tremendous, continuous attention to these schools. Some things
take 10, 15, 20 years to do and you have to stay focused.”
It is this “continuos urgency” that, according to
Whittle, the private sector does well.
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